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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.

  2. I agree, I am here with my husband who is working, I do not have a job, therefore I am unable to open a bank account and as such cannot access bank ID, I have Freja ID but that is limiting. Unless my husband grants me an allowance I cannot open a bank account! This is very dumb, I have an ID card from Skatteverket and a residence card from the consulate in Pretoria South Africa. Why is the system biased against me!

  3. The BankID rules are also very problematic for non-Swedes who spend considerable time in Sweden but who are not permanent residents. My husband and I own a car in Sweden, have a summer home, and spend 3 months out of every year there. My husband has a personnummer from his years as a student and also having worked in Sweden, and I have a sammordningsnummer. Both of us have Swedbank accounts, yet we are refused BankID because we don’t live there permanently. We have so much trouble buying even basic things there like train tickets, paying the parking meters, getting Internet and TV subscriptions, and in many other places that won’t accept our credit cards without also having BankID. We therefore have to inconvenience our Swedish friends to transact business for us while we are in Sweden. It’s maddening!

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Swedengate was the moment ‘new Swedes’ found their voice

The Swedengate Twitterstorm last week was a clash between recent arrivals in the country and Swedes with deeper roots, says David Crouch

OPINION: Swedengate was the moment ‘new Swedes’ found their voice

Last week saw a global storm in a Swedish teacup. The hashtag #Swedengate trended briefly in the US and the UK, sparked by an obscure observation that some Swedes would sometimes exclude visiting children from the family evening meal

Much fun was had at Sweden’s expense, and foreign media raised an amused eyebrow at all the fuss. But the conversation soon moved on. Cheap jibes at Swedish hospitality offered some light relief from war in Ukraine and the Texas school shooting.

Not so in Sweden. For four straight days, #Swedengate trended on Twitter among the top 10 hashtags in this country, not to mention a torrent of posts on Facebook and elsewhere. Popular tweets racked up tens of thousands of likes. Respected authors and academics hit the airwaves to explain the custom at issue. The placid Swedish duckpond (ankdammen) became a whirlpool. 

So why did most of Sweden spend the best part of a week debating its food culture? Swedes enjoy international attention, it makes a small northern nation feel noticed and important. Articles about Sweden in foreign newspapers are often picked up and discussed in Swedish media. As one Swede wrote during a Swedengate dispute on my Facebook feed, “we love to see ourselves as strange and special, even exotic”. 

But if some ripples are still being felt abroad, the eye of the storm hangs over Sweden itself. Swedengate was a clash between recent immigrants to Sweden and Swedes with deeper roots in the country. Or, to put it more bluntly, between multicultural Sweden and white Sweden. 

“New Swedes” (nysvenskar) often come from cultures that are extravagantly generous with respect to food. The idea that a guest, let alone a child, should sit separately and unfed during a meal seems monstrous to people with Iranian, Afghan, Arab or African backgrounds. My wife’s side of the family here, which has Polish roots, are positively mortified by the thought that a visitor might not be fed. 

Feeling this pressure, the old Swedes dug in their heels. The sensible thing would have been to lighten up, take the hit, confess that this once used to happen but now not so much, and admit that it looks to outsiders like very mean behaviour. This was the approach of singer Zara Larsson, who poked fun at “peak Swedish culture” and joked that “we might not serve food but we do be serving bangers” (i.e. great pop songs).

Instead, most old Swedes performed somersaults to defend the practice of excluding others’ children at mealtimes. In the mainstream media, it was explained in terms of personal insecurity or embarrassment, individualism, 19th century poverty, even respect for other families (!). On social media, people furiously supported the practice or furiously denied that it ever happened; they claimed it was not a Swedish phenomenon, or dismissed the whole thing as irrelevant. 

In any case, it is impractical to feed kids who turn up unexpectedly at mealtimes, said some. Others claimed it was an attempt by Russian trolls to derail Sweden’s Nato membership. Sweden’s Psychological Defence Agency (yes, there is such a thing) investigated whether Swedengate was a foreign disinformation campaign (it wasn’t). Author Jens Ganman, better known for his cynicism about Sweden as a cauldron of immigrant crime, was offended that people were ignoring his nation’s generosity towards refugees

The irony involved in all this was not lost on new Swedes. “As a white swede, how does it feel being judged for something that only a ‘small’ minority of your nationality do?” tweeted one, hinting at mainstream Sweden’s suspicion of Muslims as woman-hating extremists and terrorists. Said another: “It’s fucking wild to see all these people getting super defensive about #Swedengate.”

And new Swedes swiftly grasped that old Swedes were defending the indefensible; the Svenssons were in a hole and digging themselves even deeper. Whichever way you look at it, the practice – however rare it might be – of not inviting kids to share a family meal is, frankly, bizarre. 

Lovette Jallow, an author who emigrated to Sweden from Gambia when she was 11, wrote: “Laughing at Twitter finding out that Swedish people will not feed strangers. As a kid growing up here we knew to just go home around dinner time. On the flipside, my mom would feed Swedish kids though.” Centre Party youth leader Réka Tolnai tweeted: “It’s funny that the world has discovered what we immigrant kids have been talking about for years.”

Since the mood in Sweden swung against asylum and immigration in late 2015, new Swedes, particularly those from outside Europe, have experienced persistent pressure to prove that they fit into Swedish society. They have been told at every opportunity that they must integrate into Swedish society and conform to its behavioural norms. And no matter how hard they try, it is never enough – non-white Swedes feel keenly that they are second class citizens. 

With Swedengate, the boot was suddenly on the other foot. Who wants to be Swedish when Swedes are so weird?! For people from the Global South, as several observers noted, Swedengate became less about hospitality and more about far-reaching criticisms of Swedish society, such as its history of colonialism and racism. Using a debate about food to attack someone for racism seems a bit like jailing Al Capone for tax evasion. But the bigger picture is that new Swedes felt emboldened by Swedengate to express their broader grievances against Swedish culture.

The first week of June was the moment when new Swedes, immigrants, expats, whatever you want to call them, found their voice. Swedengate marks a step towards immigrants speaking up for their rights and celebrating the many contributions they make to Swedish society – not least in terms of helping to introduce a more warm and welcoming culture around food. 

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.

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