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A broader canvas of the half-life concept

Perhaps less obvious is the concept that secrecy can also have a limited life. For non-written items known only to a single person, then the ‘halflife’ is set by the death of the person with the information. When secret information or documents are spread across several people, then the possibility of disclosure increases. We can make attempts to keep information secret, or restrict access, and need to do so for a diversity of topics. The reasons are various and span political, commercial, and criminal activities (plus combinations of them). The most highly classified top secrets may be so restricted that even the people with access may not fully understand the implications (e.g. politicians may not understand the real dangers from new weaponry, or the military may not have considered agricultural consequences of a new biological weapon, etc.).

Many industrial companies also need to maintain secrecy of their production methods and ingredients. So secrecy is necessary, but the word will mean different things to different people. However, the speed with which information can now be accessed and disseminated via electronic communication means that any security leak (of whatever type, and for whatever motivation) means data that were once firmly locked away for decades can now suddenly be public knowledge. This is not a passing phase, as even ‘top-secret’ information means more than one person will have access to it. Therefore a single whistle blower, a person of conscience, or someone keen to disrupt an organization can distribute the data or ideas. In terms of half-life of secure information, technology has potentially moved us from, say, the 50-year rule of non-disclosure to instant worldwide distribution.

From many aspects, this may be desirable, as widespread dissemination can reveal criminal activities of organizations who are claiming to be acting in the national good, or charities (or their recipients) that misspend their funds. It also has revealed criminal activities that had previously been covered up by religious or other large public and private organizations. Therefore the perpetrators can no longer guarantee they will have immunity throughout their lives. The converse is that totally open access to all types of knowledge and information would undermine commercial activities and security (both local and national). I doubt that we will ever have the ideal balance, but undoubtedly technology has opened the gates for those who wish to make public disclosures. Whenever the storage computing systems are linked to other equipment and networks, then the potential for hacking to read or alter the information is incredibly high.

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