Secrecy is the practice of hiding information from certain individuals or groups who do not have the "need to know", perhaps while sharing it with other individuals. That which is kept hidden is known as the secret.
Secrecy is often controversial, depending on the content or nature of the secret, the group or people keeping the secret, and the motivation for secrecy.
Secrecy by government entities is often decried as excessive or in promotion of poor operation; excessive revelation of information on individuals can conflict with virtues of privacy and confidentiality. It is often contrasted with social transparency.
Secrecy can exist in a number of different ways: encoding or encryption, true secrecy and obfuscation, where secrets are hidden in plain sight behind complex idiosyncratic language or steganography.
Another classification proposed by Claude Shannon in 1948 reads there are three systems of secrecy within communication:
- concealment systems, including such methods as invisible ink, concealing a message in an innocent text, or in a fake covering cryptogram, or other methods in which the existence of the message is concealed from the enemy
- privacy systems, for example, voice inversion, in which special equipment is required to recover the message
- “true” secrecy systems where the meaning of the message is concealed by the cypher, code, etc., although its existence is not hidden, and the enemy is assumed to have any special equipment necessary to intercept and record the transmitted signal
Humans attempt to consciously conceal aspects of themselves from others due to shame, or from fear of violence, rejection, harassment, loss of acceptance, or loss of employment. Humans may also attempt to conceal aspects of their own self which they are not capable of incorporating psychologically into their conscious being. Families sometimes maintain "family secrets", obliging family members never to discuss disagreeable issues concerning the family with outsiders or sometimes even within the family. Many "family secrets" are maintained by using a mutually agreed-upon construct when speaking with outside members. Agreement to maintain the secret is often coerced through "shaming" and reference to family honor. The information may even be something as trivial as a recipe.
Secrets are sometimes kept to provide the pleasure of surprise. This includes keeping secret about a surprise party, not telling spoilers of a story, and avoiding exposure of a magic trick.
Keeping one's strategy secret is important in many aspects of game theory.
In anthropology secret sharing is one way for people to establish traditional relations with other people. A commonly used narrative that describes this kind of behavior is Joseph Conrad's short story "The Secret Sharer".
and security classification stickers on a laptop computer, between U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden during updates on Operation Neptune Spear, a mission against Osama bin Laden, in the White House Situation Room, May 1, 2011.
Governments often attempt to conceal information from other governments and the public. These state secrets can include weapon designs, military plans, diplomatic negotiation tactics, and secrets obtained illicitly from others. Most nations have some form of Official Secrets Act and classify material according to the level of protection needed. An individual needs a for access and other protection methods, such as keeping documents in a safe, are stipulated.
Few people dispute the desirability of keeping Critical Nuclear Weapon Design Information secret, but many believe government secrecy to be excessive and too often employed for political purposes. Many countries have laws that attempt to limit government secrecy, such as the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and sunshine laws. Government officials sometimes leak information they are supposed to keep secret.
Secrecy in elections is a growing issue, particularly secrecy of vote counts on computerized vote counting machines. While voting, citizens are acting in a unique sovereign or "owner" capacity in selecting their government servants. It is argued that secrecy is impermissible as against the public in the area of elections where the government gets all of its power and taxing authority. In any event, permissible secrecy varies significantly with the context involved.
Organizations, ranging from multi-national for profit corporations to nonprofit charities, keep secrets for , to meet legal requirements, or, in some cases, to conceal nefarious behavior. New products under development, unique manufacturing techniques, or simply lists of customers are types of information protected by trade secret laws.
Research on corporate secrecy has studied the factors supporting secret organizations. In particular, scholars in economics and management have paid attention to the way firms participating in cartels work together to maintain secrecy and conceal their activities from antitrust authorities. The diversity of the participants influences their ability to coordinate to avoid being detected.
The patent system encourages inventors to publish information in exchange for a limited time monopoly on its use, though patent applications are initially secret. Secret societies use secrecy as a way to attract members by creating a sense of importance.
Shell companies may be used to launder money from criminal activity, to finance terrorism, or to evade taxes. Registers of beneficial ownership aim at fighting corporate secrecy in that sense.
Other laws require organizations to keep certain information secret, such as medical records, or financial reports that are under preparation. Europe has particularly strict laws about database privacy.
In many countries, neoliberal reforms of government have included expanding the outsourcing of government tasks and functions to private businesses with the aim of improving efficiency and effectiveness in government administration. However, among the criticisms of these reforms is the claim that the pervasive use of "" clauses in contracts between government and private providers further limits public accountability of governments and prevents proper public scrutiny of the performance and probity of the private companies. Concerns have been raised that 'commercial-in-confidence' is open to abuse because it can be deliberately used to hide corporate or government maladministration and even corruption.