Protection of Information Bill and its Practicality relating to Information Classification

A bill was passed in South African parliament today [search Twitter for #POIB or #blacktuesday] which will effectively make it a criminal offence to possess and publish classified information (I wonder if that includes those who are responsible for managing it?). While it hasn’t become law just yet (the bill must still be approved next year), journalists are spelling the end of freedom of speech in the country, which is indeed a very concerning thought.

There are many legal, moral and ethical wars relating to this proposed law going on, but I wonder what the practical ramifications will be, and whether Government will get what they want, or the exact opposite?

Many organisations struggle with the process of identifying, classifying and securing information, so we can expect a government to have a far greater challenge at hand due to its complexity and sheer volume of information. Government processes and systems are often behind cutting edge blue-chip firms, so there is likely to be a wealth of physical, disparate and unstructured information to deal with. The easy choice (either from a KYA or practical perspective) is to deem all information as classified, and indeed I have heard this suggested in organisations too.

This is impractical as the basis for classifying information is to ensure that more sensitive and confidential information is better managed and controlled, and thus less likely to fall into the hands of those that shouldn’t have it. Making everything classified allows more people access to the information asset, and is likely to lead to unsustainable or expensive controls.

The net result in this scenario is that it could be harder to implement the Law as it is easier to get (and leak) the information, resulting in the opposite of what Government is trying to achieve. Throw social media and the relative anonymity of the Internet into the equation, and I struggle to see how this Law can be successful in muzzling those that wish to seek and share information that (insert your political or moral objective here). This should be an interesting item to watch.

As an aside, I am not for the Bill – the pragmatic view is that there will always be confidential information that should remain confidential outside a select few, but in the spirit of democracy and interests of a country you need to have avenues to expose information that citizens need in order to make decisions of future leadership accurately. As with any information classification process, one must ask ‘what is the value of the asset, and what risk are we trying to manage?’ (and perhaps in this case, who stands to benefit?)

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