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Official Secrets Act

Official Secrets Acts 1911 to 1939 warning sign in Foulness, Essex.

The Official Secrets Act is a term used in Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Malaysia, and the United Kingdom, and formerly in Canada and New Zealand for legislation that provides for the protection of state secrets and official information, mainly related to national security.


  • List 1
    • Jersey 1.1
    • India 1.2
    • New Zealand 1.3
    • Ireland 1.4
    • United Kingdom 1.5
      • Other legislation 1.5.1
    • Canada 1.6
    • Hong Kong 1.7
  • Official Secrets Acts in other countries 2
  • See also 3
  • Notes and references 4
  • External links 5




New Zealand


United Kingdom

The Official Secrets Acts 1911 and 1920 means the Official Secrets Act 1911 and the Official Secrets Act 1920.[3] The Official Secrets Acts 1911 to 1939 means the Official Secrets Acts 1911 and 1920 and the Official Secrets Act 1939.[4] The Official Secrets Acts 1911 to 1989 means the Official Secrets Acts 1911 to 1939 and the Official Secrets Act 1989.[5]

People working with sensitive information are commonly required to sign a statement to the effect that they agree to abide by the restrictions of the Official Secrets Act. This is popularly referred to as "signing the Official Secrets Act". Signing this has no effect on which actions are legal, as the act is a law, not a contract, and individuals are bound by it whether or not they have signed it. Signing it is intended more as a reminder to the person that they are under such obligations. To this end, it is common to sign this statement both before and after a period of employment that involves access to secrets (e.g. MI5/MI6).

In an episode of Yes Minister, Sir Humphrey states that the Official Secrets Act is "not there to protect secrets, but to protect officials."[6]

Other legislation

In addition to the Official Secrets Acts, the Naval Discipline Act 1957 made it an offence punishable with life imprisonment to spy on Royal Navy ships or overseas bases.[7] This was a capital offence until 1981.


22 prosecutions occurred under the Official Secrets Act in Canada, over half of which were in relation to the Gouzenko Affair.

Hong Kong

Official Secrets Acts in other countries

The phrase official secrets act may also be used to refer to statutes of a similar nature in other countries. Canada's Official Secrets Act was replaced in 2001 by similar legislation titled the Security of Information Act (which was created in the wake of September 11th 2001 to replace the vaguely worded Official Secrets Act[8]).

The United States does not have a broad-reaching Official Secrets Act, although the Espionage Act of 1917 has similar components. Much of the Espionage Act remains in force, although some has been struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional because of the First Amendment (See United States v. The Progressive, Brandenburg v. Ohio, New York Times Co. v. United States). 18 U.S.C. § 798, enacted in 1951, makes dissemination of secret information involving cryptography, espionage, and surveillance illegal for all people, and is thus an "official secrets act" limited to those subjects.

In the Republic of Ireland the Official Secrets Act, 1963 repealed previous British legislation of 1911 and 1920. The Official Secrets Act, as amended, applies to all civil servants and potentially anyone within the state. A suit may only be instigated at the approval of the Attorney General of Ireland, additionally proceedings may occur in camera but the verdict and any sentence must occur in public.

Malaysia has an Official Secrets Act (also referred to as the OSA) prohibiting the collection, possession or distribution of information marked as an official secret—an action which can be made by any public officer. The certification of a document as an official secret is not subject to judicial review, and a violation of the act is punishable with between one and seven years' imprisonment. The act has been controversial for its use to silence dissent and stifling anti-corruption activities.[9]

Australia has Part VII of the Crimes Act 1914 (Commonwealth), entitled Official Secrets and Unlawful Soundings.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ This Act was repealed by section 51 of the Official Information Act 1982 with effect from 1 July 1983 (s.1(2))
  2. ^ Official Secrets Act 1963 Accessed 5 March 2015.
  3. ^ The Official Secrets Act 1920, section 11(1).
  4. ^ The Official Secrets Act 1939, section 2(1).
  5. ^ The Official Secrets Act 1989, section 16(2).
  6. ^ [Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills "Freedom of Information : People’s right to know"] . News on Sunday. 9 May 2014. Retrieved 29 April 2015. 
  7. ^ Naval Discipline Act 1957 (c. 53), Part III Provisions relating to civilians and civil authorities, Section 93. Accessed 15 January 2008.
  8. ^ Don Butler, "Judge quashes law, warrants authorizing RCMP raid on Citizen reporter", The Province, October 19, 2006. Accessed 15 January 2008.
  9. ^ Pauline Puah, "OSA stays, says Nazri", Malaysia Today, September 19, 2006.

External links

  • Troubled history of Official Secrets Act, BBC News Online
  • Canada's Security of Information Act
  • Christopher Moran, Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
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