The answer many sources provide is "technically, no, unclassified is not a classification", but they often are referring specifically to Unclassified SBU or FOUO. Besides that... any answer that begins with "technically" whatever is obviously not an official source. Seems odd that there is so much ambiguity on what seems to be a subject with very clear and strict guidelines.

My first objection to this is on page 2 of this link. Notice... "REPORT SECURITY CLASSIFICATION: UNCLASSIFIED".

Second, NSA Type-1 encryption keys can have each classification "Unclassified", "Secret" and "Top Secret" for NIPR, SIPR and JWICS DoD networks respectively. Although Type-1 encryption keys are controlled items, the encryption key itself is designated to each level of classification. But I suppose that only implies that "Unclassified" is a classification since there is a key for it.

Third, if unclassified is not a classification then why do the SF 710 labels and (U) markers exist? They clearly identify the classification of the information and documents as Unclassified as opposed to Confidential, Secret or higher.

Sorry if the question seems trivial but there are way to many people who fall on both sides of the argument while there is only one right answer.

  • This might be better placed on English SE. – timuzhti Sep 30 '15 at 1:55
  • Doesn't seem infosec to me either. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classified_information#Unclassified – Neil Smithline Sep 30 '15 at 2:01
  • Sorry, I thought it seemed most appropriate here since an ISSO, ISSM, CSO or COMSEC custodian is probably going to have the most informed answer. I suppose the cryptography forum could be a good place but that seemed like a stretch. Are questions pertaining to classified networks no longer in the INFOSEC domain? – John R Sep 30 '15 at 2:59
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    I disagree. I think it's appropriate here, if perhaps a bit opinion-based. – Xander Sep 30 '15 at 3:07
  • Correct... it seems the available answers to the question are mostly opinion based. Is there an authoritative source to clarify? I figured SANS institute would be a good source but they have the same answer Wikipedia does... "technically its not..." – John R Sep 30 '15 at 3:14

"Classified Information" means that the information is sensitive and requires a security clearance to view.

"Unclassified Information" is the opposite: information which is not considered sensitive and may be made available to anyone.

Marking an information explicitly as "unclassified" makes clear that it was evaluated and deemed harmless. When a document is not marked yet, it was not yet evaluated for which classification applies to it. That means the person handling it can not be sure how confidential it really is and should assume that it is confidential.

  • The first two parts of your answer indicate "No, unclassified is not a classification, but rather a state in the classification process that can be either classified or unclassified (like true/false). The third part see6ms to indicate the opposite. Unclassified is the evaluated classification level as indicated by the markings and has gone through the classification process. – John R Sep 30 '15 at 12:24
  • This would mean "has not been classified" is not equivalent to "unclassified". "Has not been classified" would have no markings and has not been evaluated. "Unclassified, has been marked and evaluated with a classification of... Unclassified! Ie a document has Top Secret information but no markings. That does not mean the document is unclassified... it means the document has not gone through the classification process. If thats correct then semantics is mostly to blame. So the answer is...? – John R Sep 30 '15 at 12:34
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    @JohnR "unclassified" mostly means not sensitive/secret, but it may be for official use only. This is a classification! It should not be confused with a document which status was not yet evaluated. – John Sep 30 '15 at 17:47

Classification refers directly to markings for classified material. However, just because something is "unclassified" does not mean it is harmless or available for general release. There are controlled unclassified documents, including various forms of "official use only" (including export controlled, ITAR, personally identifiable information, legal information, law enforcement, etc.).

The limitation for classification as belonging to classified (e.g., secret/top secret/etc.) may be seen in the text an Understanding Classification Brochure (PDF).

You may originate a document that must be reviewed for classification.


You may encounter classified information you believe should NOT be classified.

When a document is created, it is (supposed) to be automatically controlled at the highest possible level consistent with the type of information and location where it was generated. To move something from a potentially controlled environment to general release requires review by a classification specialist (often called a derivative classifer). The specific rules for review, retention, etc., vary by site.

This document (PDF) also provides some additional indication where unclassified documents may nonetheless be controlled.

Note: this answer relies upon Department of Energy approaches to classified information. These approaches should be similar to, but could vary from, other agencies.

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