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Classified information is sensitive information to which access is restricted by law or regulation to particular class of persons. A formal security clearance is required to handle classified documents or access classified data. The clearance process requires a satisfactory background investigation. There are typically several levels of sensitivity, with differing clearance requirements. This sort of hierarchical system of secrecy is used by virtually every national government. The act of assigning the level of sensitivity to data is called data classification.

Some corporations and non-government organizations also assign sensitive information to multiple levels of protection, either from a desire to protect trade secrets, or because of laws and regulations governing various matters such as personal privacy, sealed legal proceedings and the timing of financial information releases.

Government classification

The purpose of classification is ostensibly to protect information from being used to damage or endanger national security. Classification formalises what constitutes a "state secret" and accords different levels of protection based on the expected damage the information might cause in the wrong hands.

Classification levels

Although the classification systems vary from country to country, most have levels corresponding to the following British definitions (from the highest level to lowest):

Top Secret (TS)

The highest level of classification of material on a national level. Such material would cause "exceptionally grave damage" to national security if publicly available.


Such material would cause "grave damage" to national security if it were publicly available.


Such material would cause "damage" or be "prejudicial" to national security if publicly available.


Such material would cause "undesirable effects" if publicly available. Some countries do not have such a classification.


Technically not a classification level, but is used for government documents that do not have a classification listed above. Such documents can sometimes be viewed by those without security clearance.


Depending on the level of classification there are different rules controlling the level of clearance needed to view such information, and how it must be stored, transmitted, and destroyed. Additionally, access is restricted on a "need to know" basis. Simply possessing a clearance does not automatically authorize the individual to view all material classified at that level or below that level. The individual must present a legitimate "need to know" in addition to the proper level of clearance.

Compartmented information

In addition to the general risk-based classification levels above, often there are additional constraints on access, such as (in the U.S.) Special Intelligence (SI) which protects intelligence sources and methods, No Foreign dissemination (NOFORN) which restricts dissemination to U.S. nationals, and Originator Controlled dissemination (ORCON), which ensures that the originator can track possessors of the information. Documents in some compartments are marked with specific "code words" in addition to the classification level.

Nuclear information

Government information about nuclear weapons such as nuclear warheads often has an additional marking to show it contains such information.

Sharing classified information between countries

When a government agency or group shares information between an agency or group of other country’s government they will generally employ a special classification scheme which both parties have previously agreed to honour. For example, sensitive information shared amongst NATOmarker allies has five levels of security classification; from most to least classified, COSMIC TOP SECRET (CTS), FOCAL TOP SECRET (FTS), NATO SECRET (NS), NATO CONFIDENTIAL (NC), and NATO RESTRICTED (NR). A special case exists with regard to NATO UNCLASSIFIED (NU) information. This is NATO property and must not be made public without NATO permission.

Another marking, ATOMAL, is applied to U.S. RESTRICTED DATA or FORMERLY RESTRICTED DATA and United Kingdom ATOMIC information that has been released to NATO. ATOMAL information is marked COSMIC TOPSECRET ATOMAL (CTSA), NATO SECRET ATOMAL (NSA), or NATO CONFIDENTIAL ATOMAL (NCA).

In cases where a country wishes to share classified information bilaterally (or multilaterally) with a country that has a sharing agreement, the information is with the countries it can be shared with. Those countries would have to maintain the classification of the document at the level originally classified (TOP-SECRET, SECRET, etc.) with the appropriate caveat (USNZ, AUSGE, CANUK, etc.).

International organisations

  • European Commissionmarker, has 5 levels, EU TOP SECRET, EU SECRET, EU CONFIDENTIAL, EU RESTRICTED, and EU COUNCIL / COMMISSION. [34119] [34120] (Note that usually the French term is used)
  • OCCAR, a European defence organisation, has three levels of classification: OCCAR SECRET, OCCAR CONFIDENTIAL, OCCAR RESTRICTED. [34121].

By country

Most countries employ some sort of classification system for certain government information. For example, in Canadamarker information which the U.S. would classify SBU (Sensitive but Unclassified) is called "protected" and further subcategorised into levels A, B, and C.


National security classifications in Australia comprise TOP SECRET, SECRET, CONFIDENTIAL, RESTRICTED and UNCLASSIFIED. Background checks for access to TOP SECRET material are carried out at either of two levels: at TOP SECRET NEGATIVE VETTING (TSNV), or at the even more stringent and expensive TOP SECRET POSITIVE VETTING (TSPV) level, depending on the extent of required access to TOP SECRET material and on the potential damage to national security should such material be disclosed to unauthorised parties. Most background checks for access to TOP SECRET material are carried out at the TOP SECRET NEGATIVE VETTING level.

Australia also has a non-national security based classification system that is used in areas of the Federal Government not directly related to national security matters. This system is used for information whose compromise would not directly threaten the security of the nation, but the release of which could threaten the security or interests of individuals, groups, commercial entities, government business and interests, or the safety of the community

Highly protected: which broadly corresponds to SECRET in the national security system.
which broadly corresponds to CONFIDENTIAL in the national security system.
which broadly corresponds to RESTRICTED in the national security system.

In addition, documents marked 'CABINET-IN-CONFIDENCE', relating to discussions in Federal Cabinet, are treated as PROTECTED.


Background and hierarchy
There are 2 main type of sensitive information designation used by the Government of Canada: Classified and Designated. The access and protection of both types of information is governed by the Security of Information Act, effective December 24, 2001, replacing the Official Secrets Act 1981. In order to access the information, a person must have the appropriate level of clearance and a Need to know.

Special operational information
SOI is not a classification of data per se, rather it is defined under the Security of Information Act for which the unauthorised release of such information constitute a higher breach of trust, with penalty of life imprisonment.

SOIs include:
  • military operations in respect of a potential, imminent or present armed conflict
  • the identity of confidential source of information, intelligence or assistance to the Government of Canada
  • tools used for information gathering or intelligence
  • the object of a covert investigation, or a covert collection of information or intelligence
  • the identity of any person who is under covert surveillance
  • encryption and cryptographic systems
  • information or intelligence to, or received from, a foreign entity or terrorist group

Classified information
Classified information can be designated Top Secret, Secret or Confidential. These classifications are only used on matters of national security.

Top Secret: This applies when compromise might reasonably cause exceptionally grave injury to the national interest. The possible impact must be great, immediate and irreparable.
Secret: This applies when compromise might reasonably cause serious injury to the national interest.
Confidential: When disclosure might reasonably cause injury to the national interest.

Designated information
Designated information is not classified. Designated information pertains to any sensitive information which does not relate to national security and cannot be disclosed under the access and privacy legislation because of the possible injury to particular public or private interests.
Protected C (Extremely Sensitive designated information): is used to protect extremely sensitive information if compromised, could reasonably be expected to cause extremely grave injury outside the national interest. Examples could include bankruptcy, identities of informants in criminal investigations, etc.
Protected B (Particularly Sensitive designated information): is used to protect information which could cause severe injury or damage to the people or group involved if it was released. Examples include medical records, annual personnel performance reviews, etc.
Protected A (Low-Sensitive designated information): is applied to low sensitivity information which should not be disclosed to the public without authorisation and could reasonably be expected to cause injury or embarrassment outside the national interest. Example of Protected A information could include employee number, pay deposit banking information, etc.

Federal Cabinet (Queen's Privy Council for Canada) papers are either designated (ie. overhead slides prepared to make presentations to Cabinet) or classified (draft legislations, certain memos).

People's Republic of China

The Criminal Law of the People's Republic of Chinamarker (which is not operative in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kongmarker and Macaomarker) makes it a crime to release a state secret. Work on protecting state secrets is carried out by the National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets.

Under the 1989 "Law on Guarding State Secrets," state secrets are defined as those which concern:

  1. Major policy decisions on state affairs;
  2. The building of national defence and in the activities of the armed forces;
  3. Diplomatic activities and in activities related to foreign countries and those to be maintained as commitments to foreign countries;
  4. National economic and social development;
  5. Science and technology;
  6. Activities for preserving state security and the investigation of criminal offences; and
  7. Any other matters classified as "state secrets" by the national State Secrets Bureau.

Secrets can be classified into one of three categories:
Top secret (绝密): Defined as "vital state secrets whose disclosure would cause extremely serious harm to state security and national interests";
Highly secret (机密): Defined as "important state secrets whose disclosure would cause serious harm to state security and national interests"; and
Secret (秘密): Defined as "ordinary state secrets whose disclosure would cause harm to state security and national interests".


In France, classified information defined by article 413-9 of the Penal Code. The three levels of military classification are
Confidentiel Défense (Confidential Defence): Information deemed potentially harmful to national defence, or which could lead to uncovering an information classified at a higher level of security.
Secret Défense (Secret Defence): Information deemed very harmful to national defence. Such information cannot be reproduced without authorisation from the emitting authority, except in exceptional emergencies.
Très Secret Défense (Very Secret Defence): Information deemed extremely harmful to national defence, and relative to governmental priorities in national defence. No service or organisation can elaborate, process, stock, transfer, display or destroy information or protected supports classified at this level without authorisation from the Prime Minister or the national secretary for National Defence. Partial or exhaustive reproduction is strictly forbidden.

Less sensitive information is "protected". The levels are
  • Non Protégé (unprotected)
  • Diffusion restreinte administrateur ("administrative restricted information")
  • Diffusion restreinte ("restricted information")
  • Confidentiel personnels Sous-Officiers ("Confidential non-commissioned officers")
  • Confidentiel personnels Officiers ("Confidential officers")

A further mention, "spécial France" (reserved France) restricts the document to French citizens (in its entirety or by extracts). This is not a classification level.

Declassification of documents can be done by the Commission consultative du secret de la défense nationale (CCSDN), an independent authority. Transfer of classified information is done with double envelopes, the outer layer being plastified and numbered, and the inner in strong paper. Reception of the document involves examination of the physical integrity of the container and registration of the document. In foreign countries, the document must be transferred through specialised military mail or diplomatic bag. Transport is done by an authorised convoyer or habilitated person for mail under 20 kg. The letter must bear a seal mentioning "PAR VALISE ACCOMPAGNEE-SACOCHE". Once a year, ministers have an inventory of classified information and supports by competent authorities.

Once their usage period is expired, documents are transferred to archives, where they are either destroyed (by incineration, crushing or electrical overtension), or stored.

In case of compromission of a classified information, competent authorities are the Ministry of Interior, the Haut fonctionnaire de défense et de sécurité ("high civil servant for defence and security") of the relevant ministry, and the General secretary for National Defence. Violation of such secrets is an offence punishable with 7 years of imprisonment and a 100 000 Euro fine; if the offence is committed by imprudence or negligence, the penalties are 3 years of imprisonment and a 45 000 Euro fine.

Hong Kong

The Security Bureau is responsible for developing policies in regards to the protection and handling of confidential government information. In general, the system used in Hong Kong is very similar to the UK system, developed from the Colonial Hong Kongmarker era.

Four classifications exists in Hong Kong, from highest to lowest in sensitivity:
  • Top Secret (高度機密)
  • Secret (機密)
  • Confidential (保密)
    • Temporary Confidential (臨時保密)
  • Restricted (限閱文件/內部文件)
    • Restricted (staff) (限閱文件(人事))
    • Restricted (tender) (限閱文件 (投標))
    • Restricted (administration) (限閱文件 (行政))

Restricted documents are not classified per se, but only those who have a need to know will have access to such information, in accordance with the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.

New Zealand

Like the United Kingdom, New Zealandmarker uses the Restricted grade, which is lower than Confidential. Information with a Restricted classification is not for general dissemination, but is not classified in the strictest sense of the word - it is often used for controlling the release of reports and other documents until it can be done officially.

People may be given access to Restricted and Confidential information on the strength of an authorisation by their Head of Department, without being subjected to the background vetting associated with Secret and Top Secret clearances. New Zealand's security classifications and the national-harm requirements associated with their use are roughly similar to those of the United Statesmarker.

In addition to national security classifications there are a number of classifications used within ministries and departments of the government, to indicate, for example, that information should not be released outside the originating ministry.

Because of strict privacy requirements around personal information, personnel files are controlled in all parts of the public and private sectors. Information relating to the security vetting of an individual is usually classified at the Confidential level even though it has no national security significance, because of the detail that is recorded through the vetting process.


The Swedish classification has been updated due to increased NATO/PfP co-operation. All classified defence documents will now have both a Swedish classification (Kvalificerat Hemlig or Hemlig), and an English classification (Top Secret, Secret, Confidential or Restricted).

United Kingdom

The United Kingdommarker currently uses five levels of classification — from lowest to highest, they are: PROTECT, RESTRICTED, CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET and TOP SECRET. Those working with such material must have the relevant security clearance and often must sign to confirm their understanding and acceptance of the Official Secrets Act. Government documents without a classification may be marked as UNCLASSIFIED or NOT PROTECTIVELY MARKED.

United States

The U.S. classification system is currently established under Executive Order 13292 and has three levels of classification — Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. The U.S. had a Restricted level during World War II but no longer does. U.S. regulations state that information received from other countries at the Restricted level should be handled as Confidential. A variety of markings are used for material that is not classified, but whose distribution is limited administratively or by other laws, e.g., For Official Use Only (FOUO), or Sensitive but Unclassified (SBU). The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 provides for the protection of information related to the design of nuclear weapons. The term "Restricted Data" is used to denote certain nuclear technology. Information about the storage, use or handling of nuclear material or weapons is marked "Formerly Restricted Data." These designations are used in addition to level markings (Confidential, Secret and Top Secret). Information protected by the Atomic Energy Act is protected by law and information classified under the Executive Order is protected by Executive privilege.

Table of equivalent classification markings in various countries

(State) Top Secret Secret Confidential Restricted
Albaniamarker Teper Sekret Sekret Konfidencial I Kufizuar
Argentinamarker Estrictamente Secreto y Confidencial Secreto Confidencial Reservado
Australia Top Secret Secret Confidential Restricted
Austriamarker Streng Geheim Geheim Verschlußsache Nur für den Dienstgebrauch
Belgiummarker (Dutch) Zeer Geheim Geheim Vertrouwelijk Beperkte Verspreiding
Belgiummarker (French) Très Secret Secret Confidentiel Diffusion restreinte
Boliviamarker Supersecreto
or Muy Secreto
Secreto Confidencial Reservado
Bosniamarker Strogo Povjerljivo Tanjno Konfidencialno Restiktirano
Brazilmarker Ultra Secreto Secreto Confidencial Reservado
Bulgariamarker Строго секретно Секретно Поверително За служебно ползване
Cambodiamarker Sam Ngat Bamphot Sam Ngat Roeung Art Kambang Ham Kom Psay
Canadamarker Top Secret/Très secret Secret/Secret Confidential/ Confidentiel
Chilemarker Secreto Secreto Reservado Reservado
China, People's Republic ofmarker Juémì (绝密) Jīmì (机密) Mìmì (秘密) Nèibù (内部)
Colombiamarker Ultrasecreto Secreto Confidencial Reserva del sumario
Costa Ricamarker Alto Secreto Secreto Confidencial  
Croatiamarker Vrlo tajno Tajno Povjerljivo  
Czech Republicmarker Přísně Tajné Tajné Důvěrné Vyhrazené
Denmarkmarker Yderst Hemmeligt Hemmeligt Fortroligt Til Tjenestebrug

Foreign Service:


(thin Black border)
Ecuadormarker Secretisimo Secreto Confidencial Reservado

El Salvadormarker Ultra Secreto Secreto Confidencial Reservado
Estoniamarker Täiesti salajane Salajane Konfidentsiaalne Piiratud
Ethiopiamarker Yemiaz Birtou Mistir Mistir Kilkil  
Finlandmarker Erittäin salainen (TTL I) Salainen (TTL II) Luottamuksellinen (TTL III) Viranomaiskäyttö (TTL IV)
Francemarker Très secret défense Secret défense Confidentiel défense Diffusion restreinte
Germanymarker Streng Geheim Geheim VS-Vertraulich VS-Nur für den Dienstgebrauch
Greecemarker Άκρως Απόρρητον Απόρρητον Εμπιστευτικόν Περιορισμένης
Guatemalamarker Alto Secreto Secreto Confidencial Reservado
Haitimarker Top Secret Secret Confidential Reserve
Hondurasmarker Super Secreto Secreto Confidencial Reservado
Hong Kongmarker Top Secret, 高度機密 Secret, 機密 Confidential, 保密 Restricted, 內部文件/限閱文件
Hungarymarker Szigorúan Titkos Titkos Bizalmas  
Indiamarker परम गुप्त (Param Gupt) गुप्त (Gupt) गोपनीय (Gopniya) प्रतिबंधित/सीमित (Pratibandhit/seemit)
Indonesiamarker Sangat Rahasia Rahasia Rahasia Dinas Terbatas
Iranmarker Bekoliserri به کلّى سرّى Serri سرّى Kheili Mahramaneh خيلى محرمانه Mahramaneh محرمانه

Icelandmarker Algert Leyndarmál Leyndarmál Þjónustuskjal Trúnaðarmál
Irelandmarker (Irish language) An-sicreideach Sicreideach Runda Srianta
Israelmarker Sodi Beyoter
סודי ביותר
Italymarker Segretissimo Segreto Riservatissimo Riservato
Japanmarker Kimitsu, 機密 Gokuhi, 極秘 Hi, 秘 Toriatsukaichuui, 取り扱い注意

Koreamarker, South I-Kup Bi Mil, 1급비밀 II-Kup Bi Mil, 2급비밀 III-Kup Bi Mil, 3급비밀 Dae Woi Bi, 대외비
Laosmarker Lup Sood Gnod Kuam Lup Kuam Lap Chum Kut Kon Arn
Latviamarker Sevišķi slepeni Slepeni Konfidenciāli Dienesta vajadzībām
Lebanonmarker Tres Secret Secret Confidentiel  
Lithuaniamarker Visiškai Slaptai Slaptai Konfidencialiai Riboto Naudojimo
Malaysiamarker Rahsia Besar Rahsia Sulit Terhad
Mexicomarker Ultra Secreto Secreto Confidencial Restringido
Netherlandsmarker Zeer Geheim Geheim Vertrouwelijk Beperkt verspreid
New Zealandmarker Top Secret Secret Confidential Restricted
Nicaraguamarker Alto Secreto Secreto Confidencial Reservado
Pakistanmarker (Urdu) Intahai Khufia Khufia Sigh-e-Raz Barai Mahdud Taqsim
Pakistanmarker (English) Top Secret Secret Confidential Restricted
Paraguaymarker Secreto Secreto Confidencial Reservado
Perumarker Estrictamente Secreto Secreto Confidencial Reservado
Philippinesmarker Top Secret Secret Confidential Restricted
Polandmarker Ściśle tajne Tajne Poufne Zastrzeżone
Portugalmarker Muito Secreto Secreto Confidencial Reservado
Romaniamarker Strict Secret de Importanţă Deosebită Strict Secret Secret Secret de serviciu
Russiamarker Особой важности
(вариант: Совершенно Секретно (Sovershenno Sekretno))
Совершенно секретно
(вариант: Секретно (Sekretno))
(вариант: Не подлежит оглашению
(Конфиденциально) (Ne podlezhit oglasheniyu (Konfidentsial'no))

Для Служебного Пользования (ДСП)
(Dlya Sluzhebnogo Pol'zovaniya)
Saudi Arabiamarker Saudi Top Secret Saudi Very Secret Saudi Secret Saudi Restricted
SerbiamarkerTerminology proposition of non-government organisation / Serbian Government (in parliament procedure) Drzavna tajna (english:State secret) Strogo poverljiva tajna / Strogo poverljivo (english:Strictly confidential) Poverljiva tajna / Poverljivo (english:Confidential) Interna tajna / Interno (english:Internal)
Singaporemarker Top Secret Secret Confidential Restricted
Slovak Republicmarker Prísne tajné Tajné Dôverné Vyhradené
Slovenijamarker Strogo tajno Tajno Zaupno Interno
Spainmarker Secreto Reservado Confidencial Difusión Limitada
Swedenmarker Kvalificerat Hemlig (KH); Hemlig/Top Secret (H/TS) Hemlig (H); Hemlig/Secret H/S) Hemlig/Confidential (H/C) Hemlig/Restricted (H/R)
Switzerlandmarker Geheim / Secret Vertraulich / Confidentiel Dienstlich / Interne au service
Thailandmarker Lap thi sut (ลับที่สุด) Lap mak (ลับมาก) Lap (ลับ)
Turkeymarker Çok Gizli Gizli Özel Hizmete Özel
South Africa (English) Top Secret Secret Confidential Restricted
South Africa (Afrikaans) Uiters Geheim Geheim Vertroulik Beperk
Ukrainemarker Особливої важливості Цілком таємно Таємно Для службового користування
United Statesmarker Top Secret Secret Confidential For Official Use Only
Uruguaymarker Ultra Secreto Secreto Confidencial Reservado
Vietnammarker Tuyệt Mật Tối Mật Mật Phổ Biến Hạn Chế
NATOmarker Cosmic Top Secret NATO Secret NATO Confidential NATO Restricted

Original source: NISPOM Appendix B [34122]¹ In addition, Finland uses label Salassa pidettävä, "to be kept secret" for information which is not classified but must not be revealed on some other basis than national security. (E.g. privacy, trade secrets etc.)

Corporate classification

Private corporations often require written confidentiality agreements and conduct background checks on candidates for sensitive positions. [34123] In the U.S. the Employee Polygraph Protection Act prohibits private employers from requiring lie detector tests, but there are a few exceptions. Policies dictating methods for marking and safeguarding company-sensitive information (e.g. "IBM Confidential") are common and some companies have more than one level. Such information is protected under trade secret laws. New product development teams are often sequestered and forbidden to share information about their efforts with un-cleared fellow employees, the original Apple Macintosh project being a famous example. Other activities, such as mergers and financial report preparation generally involve similar restrictions. However, corporate security generally lacks the elaborate hierarchical clearance and sensitivity structures and the harsh criminal sanctions that give government classification systems their particular tone.

Traffic Light Protocol

The Traffic Light Protocol was developed by the G8 countries to enable the sharing of sensitive information between government agencies and corporations. This protocol has now been accepted as a model for trusted information exchange by over 30 other countries. The protocol provides for four "information sharing levels" for the handling of sensitive information.

See also


  2. Security of Information Act
  3. Non-Insured Health Benefits Program Privacy Code
  4. Security Policy - Manager's Handbook
  5. Confidences of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada
  6. Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, " Law on Guarding State Secrets" (中华人民共和国保守国家秘密法), promulgated 1988 and effective 1989.
  7. Translation per Human Rights in China, State Secrets: China's Legal Labyrinth, (2007).
  8. Article 413-9, Legifrance
  9. 總論
  10. LCQ3: Equal Opportunities Commission

External links and references

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