William Simons talks about the Swedish Social Security Number and thinks that the invention of sliced bread should be relegated to second place in the list of all-time great inventions.
Have you ever stopped to think that our system of Personnummer (or Social Security Number) is the most humdingingly, brilliant idea since Björn Borg decided to give up football and pick up a tennis racket? We don’t seem to appreciate enough this very lifeblood of our existence, how it makes life easier, safer and more open for not just you and me; but since 1947 for all whole range of companies and organizations.
For those of you that don’t know a personnummer is the equivalent of the American Social Security Number or the English National Insurance Number – but on steroids. It is your birthdate in the format year, month, day followed by four unique identifying numbers. There is also an equivalent organization number for every company, charity or organization in Sweden. What can you do with this number? Well to put it simply, this number is connected to your purchasing and “citizen” history and allows people to make quick decisions about creditworthiness, age or suitability. In practical terms, one could turn up at a gas station, fill up your car, then realize that you have forgot your wallet; but by giving your personnummer to the cashier, they can simply invoice you that amount at a later date (providing you have a clean credit history). The person or organizational number also helps suppliers make informed decisions about new customers and therefore avoiding credit risk. The system goes much deeper than this. Want to know how much your favourite celebrity earned last year? Just ring up the tax office with your celebrity’s personnummer and they will tell you. Unsure about your potential new employee? Just ring up the cops with the personnummer and they will tell you if they have a record.
As Swedes we use personnummers so frequently that we almost fail to appreciate their significance until we realize how bad the alternative is. In The U.K. for example, they have no requirement or system for personal identification. Moving into a new house, opening bank accounts or registering to vote is a nightmare. It is so archaic that potential customers have to produce passports, utility bills and bank statements just to prove that they live at a certain address. There is currently a move to introduce national ID cards in Britain, which is being as warmly accepted as a turd in a swimming pool. Fears of “big brother”, the nanny state and freedom of information are being thrown around by opponents, but looking at the Swedish model, what do these people have to fear?
Now as a writer I’m supposed to give you a balanced view and come up with some disadvantages at this point. I’ve tried all the usual tricks I have of expanding my mind – taking the dog for a walk, having a think on the toilet and putting in an extra snus; but I have to tell you that I can’t come up with a single disadvantage! Sure if you have a poor credit rating, it makes it harder to obtain credit – but if I were a seller I would need to make sure I’m going to get paid. The system is so brilliant it is self-policing with consumers “protecting” their good standing of their personnummer by making sure they pay on time.
So the next time you are asked for your personnummer, just remember that it owes as much to Sweden’s success as ABBA, Sven-Göran Eriksson or IKEA. If this is the nanny state, then send me to bed early with a cup of warm milk and a kiss on the cheek from Stockholmgrad.