Editorial: No privacy, no integrity

Swedish genealogists have taken a beating this week, after they were told that disclosing the ethnic origins of their ancestors was against the law - unless they had got the OK from all living descendants of that ancestor.

Yet information about the salaries of every Swedish resident, their personal numbers, addresses and details of their relatives are open for public inspection. What is going on with Swedish privacy laws?

The august organ to issue the diktat against people researching their family trees was the Swedish Board of Data Protection, which is supposed to protect people’s privacy.

Given that the rule requires people to get permission from all descendants of ancestors from as long ago as the eighteenth century, it is fairly certain that this means contacting more distant cousins than are on even a genealogist’s Christmas card list.

Naturally, it’s important that personal integrity is taken seriously, although how the ethnicity of someone alive 200 years ago can have any bearing on someone alive today is hard to fathom.

Indeed, this over-zealous protection of one sort of privacy is in stark contrast to what, to a foreigner anyway, is a frightening lack of privacy in day-to-day life in Sweden.

Go and hire a movie, and you’ll see what I mean. The assistant will ask for your national ID card, will then scan it over a barcode reader, and will then know where you live, have a record of your personal number and would, if they wanted, be able to go to the tax office and find out how much you earned last year.

But that’s Sweden – where robbers can do their research over the phone with the help of the authorities before picking their prey.

In addition, the DNA of every child born in Sweden is held in a massive national DNA bank. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good idea, and the DNA bank is subject to stringent regulation. But surely there’s a serious imbalance when the state is allowed to log people’s genetic makeup while the people themselves are not even allowed to discuss their own genes online.

Another example of the confusion in this whole privacy business is security cameras.

The police are slammed for not clearing up enough crimes and the tabloids spread fear of rape, murder and drug dealing – yet any suggestion that companies or local authorities should be allowed to use security cameras is usually met with a chorus of disapproval.

“It’s a breach of personal integrity!” cry the critics, inexplicably forgetting the important roles security cameras play both in crime prevention and crime solving.

This random application of privacy laws, where ethnicity is private and personal finances are not, where privacy concerns outweigh personal safety, undermines the whole point of such regulations: preventing personal information from being used to harm the innocent individual.

Surely it’s time to put a bit of integrity back into the personal integrity laws?

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