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”?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz