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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden needs to clear up its messy digital ID system

The recent revelation by The Local that it is getting harder for non-Swedes to access the most widely used form of digital ID raises broader questions about the country’s attitude to digitalization, argues David Crouch.

OPINION: Sweden needs to clear up its messy digital ID system

Shop online, pay tax or bills, access healthcare or social services, check your bank balance or pension savings, sign official documents – for all of these in Sweden you need a digital ID on your mobile phone. So it is frustrating to learn that recent rule changes have made it harder for non-Swedes to access Bank ID, the most widely used digital ID service.

As always, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. This problem for non-Swedes follows a tightening of the rules to improve security and crack down on identity fraud. 

But it comes at a moment when Sweden is under pressure to open up its services to non-Swedes, based on digital ID technology. Indeed, Swedish citizens themselves will soon begin to be able to access public services across the EU using their Swedish digital IDs

This is part of a bigger picture in which the European Union is seeking to sweep away barriers to cross-border use of electronic identification, enabling access to online services offered anywhere within the 27 member states. The plan envisages 80 percent of EU citizens using digital ID by 2030

This would mean that government agencies and private-sector providers such as banks and phone operators would have to recognise digital ID as proof of identity across the bloc. Digital ID would provide a common foundation for making secure electronic transactions. Within as little as 18 months, Europeans may no longer need physical credentials to travel, work, access services and live anywhere else in the bloc.

The latest step is to create an “EU Digital Identity Wallet” that citizens can download to their phone. Sweden, Spain and Finland are leading a consortium to bid for up to €37 million of cash for a large-scale pilot project linking the various electronic IDs operated in EU member states to the wallet app. The transformation promised by this development is also full of potential for Sweden’s innovative financial technology (fintech) sector, which boasts big names such as Klarna and iZettle.

So how is it that Sweden can position itself as a leading player in this process, while at the same time making it harder for non-Swedes to access Bank ID? Why can Swedes go abroad and use their digital IDs, while non-Swedes struggle to get a digital ID in Sweden?

Part of the problem is that so many agencies issue means of identification in Sweden. A government inquiry in 2019 found that there were 13 such bodies, and it proposed slashing the number to only two. It also suggested a state-run electronic ID system, in addition to the privately-owned ones that exist today, to come into force in January this year.

But the process started by this inquiry seems to have ground to a halt.

With the EU accelerating its shift towards a common electronic ID platform, this could become a serious problem for Sweden. In January, Sweden’s Agency for Digital Government (DIGG) demanded that a state-run e-identification should be “urgently developed” to strengthen Sweden’s opportunities abroad and to form the basis for the digital wallet.

DIGG says that Swedish digital wallets should be issued partly by the state and partly by the private sector, in order “to take advantage of innovation in the field”. And indeed, private sector development of digital ID has served Sweden well up to now. BankID is widely used and enjoys a high level of trust. 

But there appears to be a reluctance for the state to take the initiative to clean up the messy ID system in Sweden and prepare the country for cross-border services accessible online. 

We don’t have to look very far to find countries doing precisely this. Denmark has had a state-run electronic ID system since 2010, and is currently migrating all its 4.7 million users to a new platform developed in collaboration with the private sector. Estonians have had a state-run electronic identity system for 20 years, and has extended this service to non-residents.

“Digital services and information should be based on user needs and be accessible to everyone,” says DIGG on its website home page. “Everyone” must include non-Swedes who live in Sweden and contribute to its economy and society. The problems faced by non-Swedes in accessing services digitally point to more fundamental issues with Sweden’s approach to digitalisation, which require urgent action.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

Member comments

  1. Absolutely. The BankID rules changing has totally upended the way and means I conduct my life here. When I moved here in 2020 I got a BankID through ICA Banken and recently had to replace a broken phone, thus requiring a new BankID. However, they wouldn’t give me one because the rules had changed and I didn’t have it running on another device. Their solution was to literally tell me to switch banks to Swedebank or SEB, who have yet to implement the rules. So now, after a mountain of paperwork given to Swedebank, I am awaiting a response to see if they’ll even grant me the account, much less the BankID I’m hoping to obtain by switching in the first place. It’s a huge mess and one I’m not sure how to side-step. For instance, my insurance for my cat can only be logged into with BankID. So if I have to make a claim, I’m basically screwed. I am now paying for services I cannot access because of this ass-backwards nonsense.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Racism doesn’t get much more obvious than Sweden’s refugee bias

When you look at Sweden's reception of Ukrainian refugees, it's clear that what was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria, is not considered good enough for white Christians from Ukraine, notes Stockholm University Professor Christian Christensen.

OPINION: Racism doesn't get much more obvious than Sweden's refugee bias

As thousands of Ukrainian refugees began to arrive in Sweden following the invasion by Russia, the headline of a recent opinion piece by the leader of Sweden’s far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrat party spoke volumes: ‘There is a Difference Between Refugees and “Refugees”’

For Åkesson and his nationalist supporters, Ukrainian refugees are “real” refugees. They are from ”a Christian country with a culture that is more closely related” to that of Sweden, while refugees who escaped Syria and Afghanistan were framed as being made up of millions of backward, poorly-educated “professional migrants” (his term) devoid of European values and sensibilities.

With this backdrop, recent comments posted on Twitter by a municipal council member in Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, provided a disturbing insight into how politicians, not only the far-right but on all sides of the political spectrum, use different sets of standards when considering Ukrainian and Syrian refugees. And how the vision of refugees held by the Swedish far-right has bled into the Swedish political mainstream.

On May 5, Daniel Bernmar, the group leader for the opposition Left Party in the Gothenburg municipal council, sent a series of tweets in which he detailed how fellow council members expressed dismay over the poor services and paltry benefits available to refugees arriving from Ukraine. While on the surface an egalitarian position, the irony, Bernmar pointed out, was that the levels of financial support and services about which they were complaining were set by the very same group of politicians…when the arriving refugees were predominantly Syrian.

In other words, what the local politicians considered to be acceptable support for Syrians was now considered unacceptable support for Ukrainians.

Bernmar detailed a number of the specific concerns expressed by his colleagues.

Members of anti-immigration Sweden Democrats complained that the small amount of spending money given to Ukrainian refugees meant that they could not even afford to take local buses. Why, they asked, had the policy of allowing refugees to ride for free been scrapped? Others asked how without access to public transport Ukrainian refugees could be expected to take their children to school or look for work? And, in perhaps the most Swedish of issues, municipal councilors expressed concern that Ukrainian parents could not send children under the age of three to state-subsidized daycare.

Bernmar noted that he had “never before heard these parties or people address the unacceptable social or economic situation for refugees.” He then addressed the elephant in the room. The dismay expressed by colleagues over conditions facing refugees – conditions the same politicians approved when refugees were Syrian – was unsurprising, he wrote, given that they, “did not previously apply to white, Christian Europeans.”

These revelations should come as no surprise. While seemingly at odds with Sweden’s reputation for openness and egalitarianism, the fact is that political parties at both ends of the Swedish political spectrum have adopted increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Yet, when structural discrimination is presented in such a transparent fashion, it is still jarring.

At the most fundamental level, the case demonstrates how perceptions of the value of human life and human dignity are shaped by ethnicity, religion, and nationality. What was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria just isn’t good enough for white, European Christians. Racism and ethnocentrism don’t come much clearer than that.

But this revelation cuts even deeper and wider. And it applies to nations beyond Sweden’s borders, where immigrants and refugees struggle to construct new futures. What is evident from the comments made by the local politicians in Gothenburg is that they are fully aware of the impact of their policies on the everyday lives of refugees, how the ability to participate in the workforce, for example, is dependent upon basics such as transportation and childcare. That “integration” isn’t just a question of some mythological will, but of available material resources.

To remember that with Ukrainians, but forget it with Syrians, is cynicism of the highest order. It is to amplify the smear that there is a difference between refugees and “refugees.”

Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

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