Working with Classified Materials: Why All the Secrecy?

Author:  Alex Chin

With a career in scientific or engineering research it is very likely that you will run across classified materials. There are different types of classified materials which may enter and affect your career. The three forms of classified materials are: Department of Defense (DOD), proprietary concerns, and patents. Thus it is possible that in any work field, your research or project can also be classified if you are working with any of the above mentioned materials. 
The Department of Defense is the largest and most common sector where research projects are classified since its scope reaches from the government down to contractors and supporting companies. Breaching this area of confidentiality can have consequences large enough to involve national security. Often times, DOD employees work with classified materials every day. Consequences of not following classification procedures can cost employees their jobs and even careers. If something is deemed classified, no matter how apparently mundane, it must be taken very seriously. Overall, this is not a problem, but it is often a factor that must be considered in DOD jobs.

Less common, but existing none the less, are classification for proprietary reasons. In a competitive market of companies, it is the obligation of the employee to ensure that critical research is not shared or exploited by others. For example, within the big aerospace companies of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, there is constant competition for government contracts. Sharing of ideas on proposals can be grounds for firing due to the nature of the competition for government funds.

Patents are another way at which research can be classified. Officially, the Webster’s dictionary definition of the patent is “A document granting the exclusive right to produce or sell an invention.” In this case it is the employee’s duty and obligation to protect the rights of the patent holder (the company) and forbid the release of related information.

Dr. Diane DeTurris, an aerospace engineer, who has work in government and industry, stressed the importance of confidentiality and trust. However, she also noted that in her experiences, most of the time this wasn’t a hindrance. “Working with classified materials, you just don’t talk about it.” There is nothing more, life resumes as normal, it is just another part of work. It is always a safe bet to never divulge in materials that had been considered classified. However, as Dr. DeTurris added, “I worked with confidential materials regarding Russian Airplanes. However, I was not aware the materials have been declassified until I actually visited Russia and saw the planes with my own eyes.” That was when she figured that the information was not classified anymore. The best advice is to always practice prudence in situations involving classified materials.

Dr. DeTurris also noted that often times the higher up in the chain of command the more restrictions that are placed on you. Ultimately, working on classified material is not detrimental to your career. Everyday thousands of people work on such material. Companies usually trust their employees to keep their secrets unless you show them reasons why they should not. Government employees require extensive background checks, especially in the Department of Defense. If you have any concerns about the effects and constraints of classified work, it is always a good idea to review your contract with your employer to clarify any difficulties.

In the end, follow the rules and use common sense. There are important reasons why material you may be working on is considered classified, and respecting this will leave you with no trouble. DeTurris jokingly added that classified materials are really a part of everyday life in many engineering professions and you just don’t talk about it. “When I talk to a friend of mine about his work, we talk about his office chair.”