Know the law before circulating documents online
Take a look at conversations on your mobile phone or scroll through one of the social media pages — how much confidential information can you find?
With the rapid development of technology and easy access to social networking platforms, principles of confidentiality are becoming increasingly threatened with several users circulating confidential data online, without realizing that they could be breaching privacy by doing so.
With reference to the term “data”, we mean circulars and documents whose disclosure can undermine the Kingdom’s national security or policies and impact the privacy of individuals and institutions.
Several such documents are often circulated by people looking to show off authority, ridicule policies or inflame public opinion. The problem takes a turn for the worse when the individual, who publishes the data, is an employee of the entity circulating the document. In this case, the issue is no longer confined to documents being leaked but extends to a breach of trust and ethics, too.
Noting an increase in such behavior, the National Center for Documentation and Information issued a letter, on July 18, highlighting the negligence on part of some government agencies in protecting and maintaining official documents, leading to the subsequent publication of the same.
Some may argue that official circulars are not confidential and thus available for public use. The fact of the matter is that these documents do not require a “secret” tag to be given to them — it will be considered a breach of privacy even if these documents are circulated through informal means.
The Penal Law on Dissemination and Disclosure of Classified Information and Documents has allocated a jail term of 20 years or SR1 million fine, or both, for any individual proven guilty of circulating confidential information.
The clause and its impending fines are for any individual accused of: “Disseminating or disclosing confidential information or documents, entering or attempting to enter a place without authorization (with the intent of obtaining the confidential and protected information or documents), obtaining protected information or documents by illicit ways, possessing or becoming privy to — by virtue of office — official confidential information or documents, destroying or misusing classified documents on purpose, knowing that such documents could impact the Kingdom’s security or public interest; and finally failing to maintain confidentiality of such information or documents.”
Measures are in place to raise awareness about the seriousness of the crime — which could invariably harm the security of the Kingdom or its interests — with officials tightening the law to limit the move, especially in situations of war or for individuals working for a foreign state with the intent of damaging the Kingdom’s entity.
The law is stricter for professionals holding titles of a higher rank or of a more secretive nature, eliciting a far greater punishment due to the sensitivity of their positions.
Finally, the circulation of official circulars and speeches before the official announcement of the same can damage the desired results and objectives and often harms the privacy and dignity of some of the individuals involved.
Governmental organizations and private bodies are therefore required to educate their staff about their responsibilities and the sensitive nature of their work.
Additionally, community awareness through social media is also required to remind the public of the seriousness of publishing such content. I believe that such awareness should not be limited to official documents and should be extended to an individual as well --- by respecting the right to privacy and limiting the circulation of photos, videos and security data whose misuse could harm the community or the state.
Dimah Talal Alsharif is a Saudi legal consultant, head of the health law department at the law firm of Majed Garoub and a member of the International Association of Lawyers. Twitter: @dimah_alsharif