Sweden: the country where all your personal data are online — and what you can do about it
In Sweden, data such as your home address, telephone number, birthday and even your bank card references are often available to anyone through a simple Google search. The initial reaction of new residents is, usually, to panic. But don’t despair: I am here to help!
“When I found out about it, several months after I moved here, I almost had a panic attack” — Andrea told me — “I frantically started to try to remove my info from the internet, but nothing really worked. In my panic, I thought about calling the police or something like that but then I realized that this is just the way it is here. Even if I am not comfortable at all with this”.
Andrea is an Italian who moved to Sweden a couple of years before me. Of course, when I found out about all my data being available online, I ran to him.
[Disclaimer: if you are panicking because you just Googled yourself and found out that any creep in the kingdom has access to your apartment number, scroll towards the end of this article. I finally managed to have my address removed (oddly enough, now it looks like I reside in my office…) and I do want to share how I did it with you. But also, I also have so many thoughts on this topic. So many.]
Public information (?)
When a person is a full resident of Sweden, meaning they are granted a social security number (personnummer), their data are made available to all as Public Information through the Tax Agency of Sweden (Skatteverket). Skatteverket then passes the information they have including the population register to a database for distribution.
Most Swedish people seem to be— naively, in my opinion — perfectly ok with this system. Look at this Reddit thread, in which an American user says
It’s a little unnerving to me that with a quick Google of my name you could find not only the address of my apartment, but turn-by-turn directions to my front door; e.g. “third floor, second door from the right.” It’s even more unnerving to know that this information is made public from the government by default, meaning I never opted into it.
To which, a presumably Swedish user replies
It’s not about convenience, it’s about transparency. You are missing the point if you think it’s just about finding directions to someone’s house. The address/phone number is just a small part of it. It’s about having transparency of government records. I can check how much my boss pays in taxes, I can look up what education a politician has, I can request that information about criminal cases be sent to me. This is about democracy and being accountable to the people.
I think most Swedes are completely missing the point. Think about it: the information that you can find on Google is provided by private companies, which make a profit out of our data that is given away for free by the State! It’s not even reasoning on the lines of “if you don’t pay for a product, you are the product”. In this case, we never opted in the first place — and they make it really, really hard to opt out.
I always say how much I love Sweden. However, I can say that my relationship with this country will probably be forever compromised after the pandemic. Well, I believe that the fact that all resident’s data is “Public information” can successfully be used as a metaphor for everything that I find problematic in this country (disclaimer: if your instinct tells you you should tell me to go back where I come from, you just proved my point).
First, people will try to gaslight you. If you don’t feel safe, you are paranoid — do you really think you are so important that someone will take spend some time checking where you live? Well, yes. 2020 was the year that, finally, I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel regarding a nasty stalking case that I hope to be able to write about soon. Trust me, the fact that my address and telephone number was up for everybody to see was a massive source of anxiety. I mean, what are we even talking about? This is not normal anywhere else in the world. But hey, this is Sweden: if something does not make you feel comfortable, the problem lies with you, surely not with our (perfect) system.
The second thing that really disturbs me is that, as mentioned earlier, our data are not even sold: they are given away for free! All the websites where you can find your address indeed do profit from it, either by advertisement or by offering services such as ‘send flowers’. Some websites even offer additional info regarding residents’ data to paying subscribers…
The third thing that I will never, ever, get over is the lack of intersectional thinking behind this system. This is not only being naive, this is being completely blind in the face of the need for a sense of security of women, and especially those with a foreign name. I mean, I did not research this but I am pretty sure women were not on the board that decided how to implement the system. Because no woman would have thought this was a good idea! Especially in a country like Sweden, where most people live alone.
A foreign friend of mine exchanged contacts with a fellow countryman she met during a trip. It happens to everyone, right? Especially in the past, when Facebook was extremely popular and exchanging friendship with random people met on a long haul was the norm. I know that I still occasionally have a peek into these people’s lives in my feed and I often have mixed feelings. Like, I am happy you had your second child, but will I ever see you again? Anyways, this friend of mine lives on the ground floor. She literally had a man showing up outside her window with a loaf of bread from their country. Of course, he asked her once what she would have liked him to bring back. But surely she did not expect to see him outside her window on a random date and time, unannounced!
Another thing worth considering: unless you have a very common Swedish name, chances are that every time someone looks you up on the internet, at least the first page of results will regard your personal data. This could potentially put you in front of ethical dilemmas. For example, I have a colleague that is researching a potentially violent fringe group — and she knows for a fact that she is on their radar. Of course, our employer proceeded to request for her address to be hidden. However, she noticed that she has a namesake living in the same town, with an age that could be compatible with her job. What would be the right thing to do? Alert her homonym, potentially leading to her feeling unsafe, knowing that she is unlikely to be able to remove her data?
In my case, I still see my old registered addresses, including my father-in-law’s. But what if another woman was living there alone?
Lastly, it should be mentioned this very weird (read: disturbing) habit of Swedish media to publish all sorts of lists of people in article form, for example, “the richest households in your county” or “the richest women in your municipality”. As a matter of fact, they make money out of this kind of articles: this data, of course, is harvest free of charge from their side, and then put behind a paywall. Honestly, how can this be ethical in a country in which the name or photos of convicted criminals is not shown in order to protect their privacy? Imagine that a Swedish newspaper had to write an article defending their choice of publishing the new name of the infamous Örebro rapist (who, by the way, chose a very common Swedish surname such as Eriksson, so it’s not like it would ring a bell to most Swedish people). In the article, it is stated that “some critics compare NA’s publication of Niklas Eliasson’s new name with the medieval pole of shame”.
How to remove your data (kind of)
I will now tell you what I did in order to more or less successfully hide my personal data, without having it marked as secret (sekretessmarkering) at Skatteverket level. In fact, the security department at my job has been very nice and they offered to help me apply for sekretess, mainly because of the aforementioned stalking I have been the victim of (before the pandemic, I was sitting in my office which is a public building). However, even with the tribunal documents stating that I was the victim in a stalking case, the only way to be granted a hidden address would have been for me to change my residence. Something that, in my opinion, does not make much sense and, on the contrary, penalizes the victim that is likely to be already vulnerable. I cannot say much regarding the procedure: I sent in my documents and received a call from a Skatteverket employee the day after, telling me that unfortunately, the only way to hide my address at the outpost would be to move. Therefore, while I find grotesque this rule, the system should work. If you are already considered moving, you can find most information at Skatteverket (look for sekretessmarkering).
- Google yourself and, if you have one, your live-in partner.
In fact, even after I successfully hid my address from most websites, it would still appear through my boyfriend’s name. Theoretically, it should appear also through your flatmates, but of course, asking a partner to hide your address is easier than convincing your flatmates…
2. Make a list of all the websites where your data is displayed.
3. Go through all these website: there should be either an email to reach them at or a form to print in order to request for them to delete your data. You do not need to offer an explanation on why you want your data to be removed!
4. These are the websites I contacted:
- Birthday.se : I sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org stating that I wanted to remove my information from their public searches. Don’t forget to clearly write your full name and personal number.
- Same procedure for Ratsit.se : write an email to email@example.com — however, keep in mind that Ratsit still provides the service to paying subscribers (!).
- Same procedure for Eniro: you can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org
OBS: some of these websites might send you back a form that you must print and send to them through regular post.
- Hitta.se and Mr.Koll have an online procedure, and you have to authenticate yourself through your BankID here and here.
5. You need a little bit of patience. Google will take some time before it processes all this information: for example, it is possible that for a week or more, you still see your info in the previews of Google searches but, once you click on the link, it does not actually show your info.
6. Request Google’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) using this form. I am not 100% sure if this was granted to me due to my stalking case, however, feeling unsafe because your address is public should be enough of a reason for them to hide these searches. I am still appalled that this system is allowed under EU law, to be honest. I did a quick search, and it seems to me that the situation before was even worse!
7. If your telephone number is displayed as well, you need to contact your provider and be very clear that you do not want it to be displayed online.
These recommendations are the next best thing to protect your information online. It shouldn’t be this hard, especially considering that Sweden should abide by the GDPR. If the situation is really dire, consider changing your address but keeping a separate residence, or, if you have an official paper attesting you are the victim of threats, crimes, stalking, or harassment, contact Skatteverket and request sekretessmarkering. **
The whole procedure can be tricky: to date, I do not see my real address anywhere, however, I still see my previous registered addresses.
Let me know in the comments if this was helpful. I will leave this article out of Medium’s paywall program so that it is available to everyone that needs it. My husband really helped me with all the technicalities but I know not everyone has a very involved native Swedish speaker there to help.
* I have an important update on the not-so-known implications of sekretessmarkering (officially hidden address), that you should read before considering applying. After I shared this article on Twitter, I was contacted by someone that managed to obtain the hidden address through Skatteverket and gave me their consent to share their story, hoping it can be useful to others.
A few years ago, my spouse got his wallet and house keys stolen, and we realized that the thief could find out where we lived through a quick Google search of the name present on the documents. We could not sleep for a couple of days until we had our locks changed, and we were afraid of the thief potentially finding us. We later found out that, despite in our cases this person ‘only’ stole my spouse’s wallet and keys, they were actually breaking into houses. These crimes lead to them being sent to jail. Our names were among the legal complainers in the prosecution.
When we moved to a new place, we requested for our personal information to be taken away from the public. In order to do so, we had to prove that there was a credible danger to us (including our child). But when we finally got our address hidden, we started to have all sorts of problems, for example when applying for parental benefits, have fixed rate savings accounts (because the bank could not find our address in the public database), and having ‘normal’ customer service from mobile service providers (etc.).
It was a strange couple of months, and we eventually got really fed up with having to apply for parental benefits by manually filling paper forms and send them to Forsakringskassan [the government agency that administers social insurance]… In the end, we reversed our decision and took away the secrecy. We were just amazed that how difficult it was to be safe or feel safe in Sweden when it comes to privacy. Can you imagine the implications if you, for example, can easily be the target of hate crime, or have a problematic ex?