The secret’s out: Whitehall’s document classification system devised to thwart German spies in WWII is finally being streamlined

 

It was created by the brightest minds, under the threat of invasion, at a time when even seemingly innocuous information might help the German enemy.

But Whitehall being Whitehall, things change slowly. And so it was only yesterday, 68 years after the end of the Second World War, that the Government finally announced it had got round to scrapping its infamously inefficient way of classifying confidential information.

The original system of five security classifications: Protect, Restricted, Confidential, Secret and Top Secret was devised to ensure that officials properly assessed the threat posed by every piece of paper generated by the Government machine.

And at a time when even statistics on crop yields or livestock numbers could prove useful to the enemy, it made a lot of sense. But with our foes now rather less interested in NHS waiting time statistics or the success of the welfare-to-work programme than they might have been, ministers have finally decided to reassess the current “bonkers” system.

Instead of five security classifications there will only be three, with 90 per cent of the civil service operating within the most relaxed “official” rating. Secret, and in extremis Top Secret, will only be used for less than 5 per cent of documents and files that could jeopardise national security.

The change is likely to have a profound impact both on individual civil servants and the way Government does business.

Officials will, for example, no longer face disciplinary action for leaving a “restricted” document lying around on their desk. It will also prevent the current ludicrous situation where the most secret documents can’t be sent electronically at all – instead having to be printed out and taken by hand across four lanes of traffic on Whitehall between the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office.

For the rest of the civil service, it will allow computer systems to be simplified and mean for the first time that officials on the front line will be able to use devices like iPads which are currently banned as a security risk. Perhaps less beneficially, they will also be able to cut and paste things from the internet.

The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, who has driven through the new system, said he had been shocked by the sheer inefficiency caused by the classification system. He said that when he first arrived in the Cabinet Office, the security restrictions on his computer made it so cumbersome that it was almost impossible to use.

“It was very, very clunky and I nearly threw it out of the window,” he said. “Anything secret I now look at on paper.”

Mr Maude added that the new system would not only cut costs as Whitehall would be able to buy most new IT equipment “off the shelf”, but would also allow better communication with the outside world. “There are currently documents in Whitehall that are marked ‘restricted’ that are accessible to thousands of people within a department. But the computer systems prevent them from being emailed outside the department to people who need them,” he said.

“There is obviously some really serious heavy-duty national security information which we need to vigilantly protect. But that probably represents less than 3 per cent of all the files in Government. What we need is a system which is proportionate and encourages people to make sensible decisions about what information really needs to be classified.”

But, as with every change in Government, there will be a downside – although this will be for journalists. What fun is it getting leaked a document marked “official” rather than “confidential”?

News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
newsIn short, yes
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
News
i100
Life and Style
Cara Delevigne at the TopShop Unique show during London Fashion Week
fashion
News
The life-sized tribute to Amy Winehouse was designed by Scott Eaton and was erected at the Stables Market in Camden
peopleBut quite what the singer would have made of her new statue...
Sport
England's Andy Sullivan poses with his trophy and an astronaut after winning a trip to space
sport
News
peopleThe actress has agreed to host the Met Gala Ball - but not until 2015
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories