A Call for Self-Restraint in Disclosure of Sensitive Information

05.25.11 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Instead of imposing mandatory new legal restrictions on publication of sensitive information, the nation would be better off if scientists, journalists and others adopted an ethic of self-restraint in what they choose to publish, a provocative new paper suggests.

“An abundance of information that could be useful to terrorists is available in the open literature,” wrote analyst Dallas Boyd.  But that doesn’t mean it should be censored by law.  “A soft consensus seems to have formed that airing this information does not subtract from national security to such an extent as to justify the extraordinary powers that would be required to suppress it.”

“An alternative to draconian restrictions on speech entails fostering a culture of voluntary restraint, in which citizens refrain from inappropriate revelations out of a sense of civic duty.  Its enforcement would depend not on government coercion but on individuals and institutions supplying disapproval of irresponsible discussion,” he suggested.

“Stigmatization of those who recklessly disseminate sensitive information… would be aided by the fact that many such people are unattractive figures whose writings betray their intellectual vanity.  The public should be quick to furnish the opprobrium that presently escapes these individuals,” he wrote, without quite naming names.  “The need to influence the behavior of scientists is particularly acute.”

The 23-page paper (pdf) contains an extensive account of past disclosures that the author deems questionable or irresponsible, and a thoughtful assessment of the feasibility of his own proposal.

“Perhaps the greatest obstacle to sanitizing discussion of sensitive information is the unresolved question of its harmfulness,” Mr. Boyd wrote.  Indeed, it is often not possible to state definitively that certain information poses an unambiguous hazard. It is typically even more difficult to persuade a publisher of such material to modify his disclosure practices.

Overall, the Boyd paper tends to reinforce the “soft consensus” that new legal restrictions on dissemination of information are to be avoided.  But in most cases, those who are likely to be receptive to the appeal of voluntary self-restraint on publication of sensitive data probably have already embraced it.

“Protecting Sensitive Information: The Virtue of Self-Restraint” by Dallas Boyd was published in Homeland Security Affairs, volume 7, May 2011.  A copy is posted here.