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CPSR Newsletter Winter 1995


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Computers, Privacy, and Electronic Highways in Sweden

by Stellan Welin
Center for Research Ethics Goteborg, Sweden

CPSR News Volume 13, Number 1: Winter 1995


Sweden has a very accurate system of national statistics. This system is managed by Statistics Sweden, and it covers most aspects of life. Historically, some statistical tabulations date back to the seventeenth century and are in fact the oldest in the world. Every inhabitant of Sweden, whether a citizen or a permanent resident, has a unique personal identification number. As all statistics generated by Statistics Sweden make use of these unique numbers, in principle all existing databases containing personal information can easily be matched and integrated. The same is true of data used by the Swedish bureaucracy, which was computerized very early.

Sweden also has a very far reaching freedom of information act; except for a few classified items such as health status, militarily sensitive information and so on, all government and local archives are open to anybody. You can go to whatever agency you want and demand to see the information they have. You don't even need to be a Swedish citizen. You can, for example, find out a great deal about your neighbours. At first there was some uncertainty as to whether the freedom of information act applied to databases; the present ruling is that it does and you have a right not only to read existing papers but also "potential papers." However, you may only use existing programs at the agency to extract the information.

Two special events triggered intense discussion about privacy and computers. The first happened in the early '70s when Statistics Sweden proposed to use the ordinary census (one every fifth year) to collect a lot of data to be stored in a computerized database and used for planning. When people got the questionnaires they were upset, partly because they were legally obliged to answer some rather personal questions, for example about what they did during a certain week. The ensuing discussion led to a bill in 1973 whereby Sweden adopted the first Data Act in the world to regulate the use of computerized personal information.

The second event was the publicity surrounding the Metropolit Project. On February 10, 1986, the largest Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, broke the news of a large sociological research project that had been running since 1966, surveying 15,000 people (all born in 1953), and storing the data in computerized form. Most of the research subjects were unaware of the research: they had been recruited as school children, to answer questions in interviews at that time. Most of the subsequent information had been collected through data banks of the authorities or from joint questionnaires whose explicit purpose was to further "innocent" research (for example, surveys of the number of people watching certain television programs). A public uproar ensued because the research subjects felt that their privacy had been intruded on, and angry accusations were hurled at those who were perceived to be arrogant social scientists.

The Data Inspection Board, responsible under the Data Act, had approved the project Since the project started before the Data Act, the Data Inspection Board urged the Metropolit Project to work out procedures that would comply with the requirement of informed consent central to the Data Act. Because the public reaction was so strong and violent, the Data Inspection Board decided that it was no longer acceptable to continue the project. Amid great political turmoil the Metropolit Project was terminated and all computerized data destroyed.

In April 1986 the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was murdered and public interest in the Metropolit Project dissipated rapidly. Today, there is very little discussion of issues of privacy and computers in Sweden.

Personally, I think this decrease in interest is related to how changes in the use of computers in the governmental bureaucracy afffected its relations with the citizens. In the old days, Swedish authorities introduced computers to facilitate their handling of information.

Citizens and firms were obliged by law to provide an ever increasing amount of information to the authorities. Computerization of the national and local bureaucracy produced no benefits for the citizens. This situation has changed in recent years The formerly troublesome declaration of income, to be filled out once every year, has now for most citizens been replaced by a ready-made sheet they need just check for accuracy and sign. On that new income declaration form the income is already printed as well as bank account balances, the value of one's house, and so on. All this information has been collected by the authorities from other sources than the citizen. Since the firms and the banks have to provide information on salaries and accounts to the tax authorities anyway. not much extra work is involved on their part. Everybody is more or less satisfied with the computerized bureaucracy. (Some are of course unhappy with the bureaucracy, but not because of its computerization.)

The public interest today is focused on "electronic highways" and the Internet. Sweden has a well developed telephone system; cables are everywhere, and knowledge of English is widespread. The former government set up a commission on information technology that produced an enthusiastic white paper on how to implement information technology. The commission evidently saw such technology as one way out of Sweden's present economic and financial predicaments. The newly elected government seems to be less enthusiastic about information technology. On the other hand, Swedish Telecom, information technology corporations like Ericsson, and the research community are strong agents who advocate a rapid expansion of the number of services available through the net.

Welin, Stellan, "The Computerized Social Scientist--Moral and Political Issues" in In Science We Trust?, eds. Aant EIzinga et. al., Lund: Lund University Press, 1990.

Stellan Welin can be reached at


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