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What Does "Sensitive but Unclassified" Mean?

Paul Cartmell
Paul Cartmell

"Sensitive but unclassified" is a term used by U.S. local and federal government agencies to refer to information that is not classified for reasons of national security. Despite not being classified, the information is often of a sensitive nature that may pose a threat to national security or reveal personal details of the individuals included in the documents. To be marked as "sensitive but unclassified," the contents of government documents must meet the criteria laid out in the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.

President Jimmy Carter introduced the phrase "sensitive but unclassified" when he introduced the National Telecommunications Protection Policy on 16 November 1977. The policy was designed to protect information passed between government agencies from public disclosure as either a whole or partial holding back of the contents of government correspondence. The term can also be used as a protection from unauthorized disclosure, allowing prosecution for those responsible for releasing government secrets to the public.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Personal information is often protected to ensure that government employees and contractors are safe from the release of their details to the public. Included in these details are social security numbers, payroll information, and medical records. Contractor proposals and bids are often held securely under the "sensitive but unclassified" tag until it is safe to be released.

Border control details concerning the issuance of visas, the right of foreign nationals to enter the U.S., and applications for asylum are some of the details secured but not classified for national security. Possible national security threats such as passwords and usernames providing access to networks and systems that could be used to damage the U.S. are usually given the sensitive security term to protect the infrastructure of the country. "Sensitive but unclassified" is also given to correspondence between the U.S. and foreign governments that could be damaging to international relations if made available to the public. Law enforcement information can also be protected in this way, particularly details of ongoing or sensitive investigations.

Once government information is given the "sensitive but unclassified" designation it can only be released to the public under the supervision of government officials. Each government department has its own rules regarding the passing of sensitive documents; for example, the U.S. Department of State only allows information to be moved within the department without the permission of designated officials. Different types of security terms are used for sensitive documents including SBU/NOFORN that cannot be issued to non-U.S. citizens. Transmitting these documents online usually requires encryption through U.S. government software.

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