In mid December, the Swedish police once again found themselves in hot water. Just two years after scandalous revelations surrounding the existence of a police registry of Roma people (whose inclusion was seemingly based primarily on their ethnicity) made international headlines, the national radio broadcaster Sveriges Radio revealed that police have been keeping a registry of the Roma beggars on Sweden’s streets for over a year. Given that the police’s disciplinary board has been grappling with the last case as late as this Monday, you’d think they’d have trod a bit more lightly around gathering personal information of ethnic minorities for secret centralised databases. But how important is it for the police to have impunity in the collection of information in order to tackle crime? And how much do we care about the protection of our personal data, anyway?
The 2013 Skåne registry scandal saw a widespread outcry from people who were understandably pissed off that their toddlers and dead relatives were apparently being tracked by police for no reason other than that they were Roma. There were even some coy attempts to deny that the name of the registry, “Kringresande” or Travellers, had anything at all to do with the ethnicity of the people in it.People whose names were on the Skåne registry were awarded 5,000SEK each in damages after it was found to be unlawful. But that registry was primarily branded as super dodgy due to the fact that a) nobody kept logs of who had accessed the database, or why, and b) it didn’t really seem to serve much of an overall purpose other than being, as the Swedes say, “bra-att-ha” (good to have). The police have been careful to point out that the new registry is allegedly serving the greater purpose of tackling human trafficking among immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, and doesn’t exist simply because they really like having lists of names lying around… just in case.
Roma commentator and public figure Hans Caldaras claims there are sinister intentions at work in the registry’s creation and the photographing and interviewing of beggars by police, namely the expulsion of Roma immigrants from Sweden. Given the minority’s history in both Sweden and Europe in general, you can see why he’d be concerned. But while there are possibly less intrusive ways of investigating human trafficking than taking a Humans Of New York approach to gathering evidence, it should be noted that Sweden as a whole has a startlingly open approach to personal data and its availability.Fun fact: unless they’ve gone to considerable effort to have their identity protected, everyone who’s registered in Sweden has their full name, birthday and address posted online, information that is helpfully provided by the Swedish Tax Agency. Sites such as hitta.se collect all this data together in an easily accessible website, so that if – for example – you felt like tracking down the whereabouts of renowned Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård, you could do so with breathtaking speed and accuracy.
The site also tells you what kind of car he owns, and suggests you send him flowers on his birthday as though he’s your long-neglected great-uncle. Sites like ratsit.se go one further and will tell you he’s married, that he has two corporate engagements, and for the very reasonable price of 10SEK (about 82p) they will let you know whether he’s ever had a mark on his credit rating. For 29SEK (£2.37) they’ll even let you take a look at his tax history. This information is available about every single person registered in Sweden. It took me some time to realise this meant me as well, a lowly student immigrant who doesn’t have a multiple-film contract with Marvel (but may or may not be hiding from a shady past in a French emu-smuggling cartel).Seeing my own front door on that website was a shock – I don’t actually remember explicitly consenting to all this information being made available to all and sundry, but it seems to come with the territory of living in one of the least corrupt nations in the world. Of course, neither I nor my good friend Stellan has our ethnicity or even nationality recorded on those websites, nor do we have hundreds of years of systematic persecution to act as a cautionary tale. And being included on a nation-wide and slightly stalkerish website is not the same as being included in police records so soon after a scandal on the scale of the Skåne registry.
On the same day the news of the new registry broke, the Guardian reported that an agreement had been reached on a draft of new EU-wide data protection rules. The proposed legislation will make it easier for law enforcement agencies within the EU to coordinate and exchange information, while simultaneously promising greater protection for individuals’ right to privacy. It’s clear that in the wake of the Paris attacks last November that there will be a greater demand for intra-EU law enforcement cooperation in future, but we should be cognizant of how such integrated systems might affect the way in which our data is accessed and used. Moreover, we should be mindful of how it might affect groups who have been persecuted rather than protected by such systems in the past. It’s a complicated topic, and one that only tends to produce headlines when they’re about scandals such as Skåne or the possibility of teens being booted off Facebook. But if worrisome registries can arise in a country with a system as scrupulous as Sweden’s, it might be worth taking at least a cursory look at who’s gathering our information – and why.