A typical classified document. Page 13 of a U.S. National Security Agency
on the USS Liberty incident
, partially declassified and released to the public in July 2004. The original overall classification of the page, "top secret", and the Special Intelligence code word "umbra", are shown at top and bottom. The classification of individual paragraphs and reference titles is shown in parentheses—there are six different levels on this page alone. Notations with leader lines at top and bottom cite statutory authority for not declassifying certain sections.
Classified information is material that a government body deems to be sensitive information that must be protected. Access is restricted by law or regulation to particular groups of people with the necessary security clearance and need to know, and mishandling of the material can incur criminal penalties.
A formal security clearance is required to view or handle classified documents or to access classified data. The clearance process requires a satisfactory background investigation. Documents and other information must be properly marked "by the author" with one of several (hierarchical) levels of sensitivity—e.g. restricted, confidential, secret and top secret. The choice of level is based on an impact assessment; governments have their own criteria, which include how to determine the classification of an information asset, and rules on how to protect information classified at each level. This often includes security clearances for personnel handling the information.
Although "classified information" refers to the formal categorization and marking of material by level of sensitivity, it has also developed a sense synonymous with "censored" in US English. A distinction is often made between formal security classification and privacy markings such as "commercial in confidence". Classifications can be used with additional keywords that give more detailed instructions on how data should be used or protected.
Some corporations and non-government organizations also assign levels of protection to their private information, 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.
With the passage of time much classified information can become a bit less sensitive, or becomes much less sensitive, and may be declassified and made public. Since the late twentieth century there has been freedom of information legislation in some countries, whereby the public is deemed to have the right to all information that is not considered to be damaging if released. Sometimes documents are released with information still considered confidential obscured (redacted), as in the adjacent example.
The question exists among some political science and legal experts, whether the definition of classified ought to be information that would cause injury to the cause of justice, human rights, etc, rather than information that would cause injury to the national interest, to distinguish when classifying information is in the collective best interest of a just society or merely the best interest of a society acting unjustly, to protect its people, government, or administrative officials from legitimate recourses consistent with a fair and just social contract.
The purpose of classification is to protect information. Higher classifications protect information that might 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.
However, classified information is frequently "leaked" to reporters by officials for political purposes. Several U.S. presidents have leaked sensitive information to get their point across to the public.