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Information security: what are we protecting?

31.05.2012    source:
Yevhen Zakharov
The author calls the trend towards making more information classified and restricting access to information “more dangerous for the country’s future than any other violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms”

  Article 17 § 1 of Ukraine’s Constitution states that protection of “information security is …a matter of concern for all the Ukrainian people” It is quite difficult to comment on this essentially meaningless assertion since in it the purely government task of protecting information on restricted access in the possession of State bodies is viewed virtually as a strategic task for the whole of society. Or should this be understood as the protection of freedom of information from the arbitrary interference of the State?

Information security is mentioned in hundreds of normative acts with dozens of documents directly focused for 15 years now on its protection.  These include the Doctrine of Information Security; decrees of the last three Presidents; several decisions of the National Security and Defence Council; international documents regarding cooperation within the CIS… Yet not in one of them is there a definition of this concern and what in fact is being protected we can try to understand from a list of the numerous threats and measures for overcoming them.

From approximately the middle of 1995 a trend gradually developed towards ever more classifying of information and restriction of freedom of information exchange observed throughout the post-Soviet realm.  This would seem more dangerous for the country’s future than any other violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The reasons are as follows.

The information sphere is the foundation on which all political, administrative, economic and other decisions in the sphere of human activity are based.  The more information used in taking such decisions, the more they will be well-founded and effective. The most important political decisions are usually consolidated at the level of law and set down in various normative acts.

We thus have a three-tier system for decision-making: information, politics, legislation.  One can use the metaphor of a tree: roots, trunk and crown.  The more developed the root system, the stronger the tree. And when at the legislative (third) level acts are passed which prohibit or limit access of the participants in controversial political debate (the second level) to information (to the first level), then the quality of the political decisions will inevitably deteriorate. An unnatural situation arises where the crown does not let its own roots nourish the tree. This happens particularly often in cases where there are attempts by the State executive or even parliamentary institutions to limit and control the information flow. This is usually done with the best intentions, yet societies thus blighted by isolationism end up in stagnation, their intellectual elite emigrating and their economic complex turning into a supply of raw materials for their more open and therefore more dynamic neighbours.

This situation seems to some degree natural if we consider the organic nature and character of the relations between information and the authorities:  in the cybernetic sense information is the “amount of unforeseen things contained in a notification” (Abraham Mohl). For the purpose of social stability the government pushes information novelties into the far background and at first it seems as though nothing bad is happening.  Crisis and profound social frustration appear later. As a result, the government’s good intentions and the government itself are discredited. To avoid such situations experienced democracies draw up constitutional safeguards prohibiting anybody from interfering with freedom of information. A vivid example of such guarantees is the First Amendment to the US Constitution which prohibits even Congress from taking decisions which threaten freedom of information.

Since specifically new knowledge makes it possible to effectively resolve social problems, restriction of access to information indicates unconditional hampering of social development and runs counter to the idea of scientific progress. As the XX century western philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend said, in the interests of scientific progress everything is permissible since science is a collage and not a bureaucratically organized system. It therefore seems a mistake to classify the Law on State Secrets to items of information which are a state secret, information about scientific, scientific research, research-planning and planning work, which should form the basis of progressive technologies, new forms of production, or technological processes which have important defence or economic significance or greatly influence foreign economic activities and Ukraine’s national security.  The state can and should restrict access to information where this is needed to carry out the functions of protecting order and safety, information which at their own risk are gathered by the information bodies and which are clearly items of information which if divulged can cause harm. However one must under no circumstances restrict access to information regarding the content of what is not yet known for the future.

Criminal cases

These days it would be hard to find people still doubting that it is those societies in which creative thinking develops most freely and swiftly and finds inspiration from the information sphere which develop most efficiently.  It is for this reason that the linear defensive trend in Ukrainian legislative work seems so systemically dangerous for the country. In general science in which the political and economic future of the country is scarcely scratching out an existence.  The one possibility for defining real values of scientific and technical creation is taking part in international projects since the scientific market within the country in any other form is virtually non-existent.  However the free exchange of scientific information to foreign colleagues, unhampered scientific discourse clearly worries the State bodies as is clearly evidence both by normative acts passed, and by everyday practice.

The following cases are typical: the accusations later withdrawn against Volodymyr Strelko, a member of Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences of leaking secret information to the USA; accusations against two young Kharkiv engineers of spying for China; the sentences in criminal cases under Article 333 of the Criminal Code « Infringing the procedure for international transfers of goods which are subject to State export control”.

They found information downloaded from Google on engineer O’s memory stick about reikotron (electronic accelerator of masses), and although neither O, nor his colleague C had ever worked in state-funding institutions and did not have access to state secrets, and no research on reikotron, according to experts, is being carried out in Ukraine, a charge which is in my opinion absurd appeared. An investigation is under way and O and C have been in SIZO [pre-trial detention centre] for several months.

Physicist V. worked on a contract from one of Ukraine’s leading higher education institutes, with a Chinese institute on creating a device which has no military purpose.  In accordance with the contract he passed on quarterly reports on the work.  These actions were deemed by a court to constitute elements of the crime under Article 333 § 1 of the Criminal Code and V received a 3 year suspended sentence. The Court of Appeal reduced the sentence to a fine.

At present the main asset of any country is people able to create new things. It is they who bring the country much needed investment. John Locke once said that individuals differ in terms of their intellectual capacity more than people differ from animals.

The above, in my opinion convincingly demonstrates that with incorrect information orientation points the SBU [Security Service] as specially empowered state body on protection of state secrets is swiftly turning into a direct threat to Ukrainian civil society.

There is no need to prove that lack of openness regarding information in the entire world has only one result:  it leads to stagnation and mass exodus of talented people. We therefore need broad public discussion regarding what information should be controlled and how such cases in our long-suffering country can become impossible.

Yevhen Zakharov, Co-Chair of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group

The views expressed are not necessarily those of Radio Svoboda (which published the original Ukrainian text

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