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What Does "Born Secret" Mean?

"Born secret" refers to information that is inherently classified from the moment of its conception, typically due to national security concerns. This concept often applies to sensitive military or governmental data, where unauthorized disclosure could pose a significant threat. Understanding its implications is crucial in a world where information is power. How does this affect access to knowledge in your country?
Angela Farrer
Angela Farrer

Certain sets of information are designated born secret when they have restricted access from the very beginning. Born secret information usually contains descriptions and scientific test results of technologies that could potentially threaten the safety of a country's citizens. Laws concerning born classified data originate from actions of the United States (US) government during World War I and World War II. Officials placed secrecy restrictions on patents for specific weapons that could do a great deal of harm in the wrong hands. This kind of legislation was originally intended to be temporary, although it later became permanent under the Invention Secrecy Act that was passed into law in 1951.

High-ranking military and government officials are typically the only personnel with access to born secret information. Born classified inventions are subject to specific restrictions under the jurisdiction of national patent-granting agencies. Inventors are not given a general patent and are required to follow specific steps for keeping the details of their work a secret. This type of restriction is generally known as a secrecy order.

Information that has been classified from the very beginning was "born secret."
Information that has been classified from the very beginning was "born secret."

Governing bodies such as the US Department of State have strict and comprehensive guidelines for who may be granted access to a born secret. Both civilian and military workers are generally allowed to learn of this information only when absolutely necessary. They are usually required to agree to extensive background checks of both their career histories and personal characters to determine if they present risks of a security breach.

Nuclear weapons programs may be 'born secrets' by militaries.
Nuclear weapons programs may be 'born secrets' by militaries.

The exact details of born secret technologies are unknown, but some comparable inventions have had these restrictions lifted. These declassified items usually pertain to nuclear weapons or similar technology applied to national defense measures. Specifics of these weapons' design, fabrication, and operation are normally kept as classified information due to the possibilities of large-scale destruction in times of warfare.

Some types of born classified information are considered threats to a country's economic stability rather than to the security of its people or infrastructure. This data may include global trade details that could possibly be exploited if leaked to groups that wish to do harm to a certain nation. Depending on the laws of different countries, exposing this kind of secret information carries various degrees of punishment, according to the stringency of the applied secrecy orders. The legality of born secret restrictions has also been challenged as a possible violation of certain rights such as freedom of the press.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the "born secret" doctrine?

The "born secret" doctrine refers to a legal concept in the United States that automatically classifies certain types of information as secret from the moment of their inception, without the need for formal classification. This typically applies to information related to nuclear weapons and their design, as established by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954. The idea is to protect national security by preventing the dissemination of sensitive nuclear data.

How does the "born secret" doctrine affect freedom of information?

The "born secret" doctrine can significantly limit freedom of information, as it imposes strict controls over the dissemination of nuclear-related information. This means that even if such information is inadvertently discovered or independently developed by a private citizen, it cannot be legally shared or published. Critics argue that this can stifle scientific discourse and the free exchange of ideas, which are fundamental to democratic societies and scientific progress.

Can information that is "born secret" ever be declassified?

Yes, information that is "born secret" can be declassified, but this process is typically stringent and slow. Declassification requires a review by government authorities to ensure that releasing the information no longer poses a threat to national security. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees nuclear-related information, declassification decisions are made in accordance with the Atomic Energy Act and other applicable laws.

What are the penalties for disclosing "born secret" information?

Disclosing "born secret" information can lead to severe penalties, including imprisonment and fines. Under the Atomic Energy Act, unauthorized disclosure of restricted data is a federal crime, and individuals found guilty can face up to life imprisonment or, in cases involving espionage or an intent to injure the United States, the death penalty. These strict penalties underscore the government's commitment to safeguarding national security interests.

Does the "born secret" doctrine apply to other types of information besides nuclear data?

While the "born secret" doctrine is primarily associated with nuclear information, the concept can extend to other areas that are critical to national security, such as certain military operations, intelligence activities, and advanced technology. However, the automatic classification of information as secret at the moment of its creation is unique to nuclear data under the Atomic Energy Act. Other types of sensitive information typically require a formal classification process.

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Discussion Comments


The rise of computer technology has bred a whole new type of thief or spy, if you will, the hacker.

Some hackers work on their own or with espionage groups to obtain government secrets and sell them to the highest bidder.

Getting into top secret government computer networks is difficult, but for a computer genius that dedicates their life to this crime, it can be done.


No matter how well-guarded top secret information is, there will always be a human factor that could potentially compromise security.

For example, the military contracts production of top secret weapons and equipment to civilian companies.

Although the screening and security processes are intense, there will always be insiders willing to sell information.

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    • Information that has been classified from the very beginning was "born secret."
      By: gunnar3000
      Information that has been classified from the very beginning was "born secret."
    • Nuclear weapons programs may be 'born secrets' by militaries.
      By: Oleksiy Mark
      Nuclear weapons programs may be 'born secrets' by militaries.