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Where are the Documents?

Written: January 2023

Government confidential documents often contain sensitive information related to national security, military operations, diplomatic relations, and other important matters which could potentially harm the interests of our country or our citizens if made public. Therefore, there should be a focus on protecting these documents from unauthorized access or disclosure. The protection is accomplished through a variety of measures, such as encryption, secure storage, and strict access controls.

Additionally, laws and regulations such as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Official Secrets Act are in place to help govern the release of confidential information to the public. The focus on government confidential documents currently in the news is no surprise since the subject is of public interest. We all care about the functioning of government and the way decisions are made. Although there may be differences in the motivation behind presidential and vice-presidential treatment of confidential documents, the subject is not political.

 The protection measures, procedures, laws, and regulations have clearly not worked. One preposterous proposal advanced recently by some government staffers was to use different color paper for different levels of confidentiality. For example, for secret information, print it on yellow paper, and for top secret information, print it on red paper. In my opinion, the correct solution revolves around two pairs of words, information technology and document management. In this article, I will attempt to describe possible solutions without getting too technical.

Practicing what I preach, I will start by describing how I manage my own documents. Except for diplomas hanging on the wall and a few embossed items, all of my documents are digital and live in the clouds, Google Drive, Apple iCloud Drive, and Dropbox. Any one of the three would be adequate but as new cloud services came along, I was quick to try them. At some point I may consolidate. Most of my active documents are stored in Dropbox, tens of thousands of them. I have been accumulating digital documents for more than 15 years.

Documents in the cloud can be much more secure than documents living in a file drawer or on a personal computer or home server. Documents in the cloud are encrypted (scrambled). If hackers broke into Dropbox and stole my documents, they would not be able to read them. As a further level of security, I keep all my documents backed up on a solid-state hard drive. The external drives are very small, hold trillions of bytes of data, and have become inexpensive. I have backups by the hour, day, week, month, and year.

Most of my documents are created on one of my Apple devices as spreadsheets, PDFs, or text-based documents. Some of my documents come from outside. For example, if I get a 1099-MISC document in the mail (most 1099s these days are available to download digitally), the first thing I do is scan it with a desktop Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner. Next, I put the new PDF file in a folder on one of the Apple devices.

Once on a device, the cloud service replicates to my other devices. Folders are important. They enable me to keep my documents organized and easy to find, and I have hundreds of them. One of the folders is named Taxes. Inside Taxes are folders going back to 1994. In the 2022 folder are two folders: To be entered in TurboTax and Entered in TurboTax. Examples of other folders include Financial, Investments, Estate Planning, Health and Fitness, Home Repairs, Travel, etc.

By default, all my folders are only accessible by me. My Apple devices can only be accessed using my faceprint or fingerprint. My hundreds of online websites are protected with long, ugly, and unrememberable passwords. By the end of this year, I expect most websites will be using passkeys stored in my iPhone with no more passwords.

Having my documents secured is good and essential, but there are times I may want to share a document with a family member, board member, or collaborator. When such need arises, I send a Dropbox, Apple, or Google invitation to share the document. There are various levels of trust which can be delegated. The most secure is to delegate the ability to only read the document. This protects the integrity of the document. If I am co-authoring a document or collaborating on a spreadsheet, I delegate the ability to read the document and edit the document. A further level of delegation is to allow the person you invited to delegate further. The more you delegate and more liberally you delegate, the more risk you assume. I only give editing rights when necessary and rarely allow further delegation.  

There are many document management tools available, including both free and paid options. Some popular examples include Microsoft SharePoint, Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, and Evernote. Additionally, there are many specialized document management tools for specific industries or use cases such as legal or medical document management systems. Numerous document management solutions are available for the unique needs of government.

Specialized solutions can go much deeper than what I described about my own document management. For example, a good document management system would keep a log of every access, when a document was accessed, for how long, by who. Controls are available to prevent a document from being printed. There are many options and our government at all levels, federal, state, and local, should be implementing such solutions. Estonia and Ukraine are way ahead of us at creating an e-government.

There are billions of documents in the world. Maybe trillions. When it comes to paper documents, as many as 7.5% of them get lost. All the lawyers you see in the news are carrying briefcases, some of them huge. Guess what is inside of them? iPads and other tablets are perfect for documents. A desktop, smartphone, or tablet can be a SCIF, a sensitive compartmented information facility in government intelligence parlance, an enclosed area within a building that is used to read or process sensitive classified information. There are tools available to sign with a digital pencil. We really do not need paper documents. A possible exception is wills and trusts. Mine are in Dropbox but the lawyers have paper copies in a safe, a steel one. When it comes to litigation, lawyers will demand paper copies. This will change in time.

Is it technically possible to implement totally secure digital document management systems in the United States government? Perseverance, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, landed on the Martian surface about 140 million miles away on February 18, 2021. The rover used a complex and precise landing system called the “Sky Crane” to safely land on the surface of the planet. The landing sequence began with the spacecraft entering the Martian atmosphere at a speed of about 12,000 mph. Then, a parachute deployed to slow the descent and a set of rockets called the “Terrain-Relative Navigation” system used images of the Martian surface to guide the spacecraft to its landing site. The government can do this but doesn’t know where all its documents are.


Roughly 40 years ago, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North was using PROFS, an IBM Professional Office System, to exchange emails among North, Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter and others at the National Security Council. North was indicted in March 1988 on 16 felony counts. A lot of the evidence revolved around emails which North thought he had deleted. PROFS had a delete key, but what he didn’t know was the IBM system automatically backed up everything, and had a system to recover even emails which had been deleted.