(Re)conceptualising state secrecy

  • Lydia Morgan Birmingham University
Keywords: Concept of secrecy, state secrecy, national security, public law, investigatory powers, freedom of information, transparency


This paper seeks to reconceptualise state secrecy and asks whether it is adequately understood in the UK. It argues that state secrecy is systemic not exceptional and that it is supported by complex institutional structures and cultural practices. It analyses the legislative armoury of state secrecy, including investigatory powers (RIPA, DRIPA and IPA) and develops a tripartite model of state secrecy. Properly understood, state secrecy can be divided into three categories: esoteric, operational and efficient. Esoteric state secrecy restricts access to decision-making and information. It is a facet of power, utilised to control. Operational state secrecy protects techniques, procedures and investigations. It is not as all-encompassing as esoteric state secrecy, but can be cumulative where one demand for secrecy creates another. Finally, efficient state secrecy references the pragmatic sense in which secret conditions allow faster decision-making and the conceptual limits of transparency in a modern complex state. These categories illuminate how state secrecy’s true effects are masked because it is so entrenched.