Privacy Online – The Case Of E-Government In Sweden

Elin Palm


Increasingly, government agencies offer citizens their services online – a development that sometimes is described in terms of a shift to a “paperless government”. Correctly used, it is hoped that e-Government may increase transparency and civic involvement. The EU action plan on e-Government promotes a more efficient and easily accessible digital government. It requires EU Member States to “ensure that by 2010 all citizens, including socially disadvantaged groups, become major beneficiaries of e-Government, and European public administrations deliver public information and services that are more easily accessible and increasingly trusted by the public, through innovative use of ICT, increasing awareness of the benefits of e-Government and improved skills and support for all users” (the “i2010 e-Government Action Plan: Accelerating e-Government in Europe for the Benefit of All”). The extent to which individual member states offer on-line services vary however.

In Sweden, ranked in top on the United Nations’ 2008 e-Government Readiness Index (The Cap Gemini Ernst & Young survey on electronic Public Services in Europe, 2006), a long-standing governmental goal has been to create the “24 hours authority” – an electronic service available 24 hours a day 7 days a week, providing Swedish citizens access to public services and contact with all government authorities and agencies. Although the encompassing e-Government has not been launched as planned, a significant number of governmental services are made available online. Increasingly, Swedish citizens rely on e-services for tax issues, pensions, parents’ allowance and health insurance.

Nevertheless, projects aimed at the establishment of e-Government are typically considered difficult and to include a large amount of risk (Heeks, 2006, Heeks and Stanforth, 2007). Information security issues like confidentiality and reliability make up serious challenges. Most e-services are based on ICT and share the general vulnerabilities of the Internet infrastructure.

The expanding field of on-line governmental service implies that an increasing amount of personal information is collected and transferred via channels that may be difficult to secure from a technical perspective.

Importantly, e-services are beneficial both to service users and service providers and e-Government implies easy access to vital services irrespective of time and location. Using the Internet to apply for sick-leave reimbursement or to declare taxes is obviously efficient and convenient. In particular, it has been emphasized that individuals with impaired mobility may gain substantially from not having to visit a government agency in person and from not having to employ a proxy to conduct these tasks on their behalf. Governmental agencies benefit in terms of enhanced efficiency by saving time on reduced paper work and by allowing for direct access (transparency).

Just like e-services are to the advantage of service providers and service users, both parties are subject to risks. In order to utilize e-services, users typically create online profiles by providing person specific data such as social security number, address, financial and martial status etc and information relevant for the particular service such as reasons for and duration of sick leave. Information in electronic files or registers may be sensitive to the service users and inadequate system security may enable unauthorized users to change or erase the information. It may also prevent government agencies from fulfilling their duties and exercising their services. If information in electronic files or registers are changed or erased by unauthorized users, a government agency’s decision to grant reimbursement for e.g. sick-leave may err if based on incorrect or incomplete information. More to the point, incidents may undermine public trust in the agencies and their services.

The emerging e-service society increases the need for well functioning information security – both system security and security of personal data (Brey in:. Petkovic and Jonker, 2008). That is, data protection requires both robust technical systems to protect the data and awareness of proper and ethically defensible ways of handling the information to be collected and processed. It is crucial to find a proper balance between the social costs and benefits when securing e-governmental services and safeguarding the privacy of citizens. This paper provides an analysis of the meaning and value of “privacy”, “transparency”, “public access to official documents” and “data protection” in relation to online services and e-Government. It explores the issue of balance from an ethical perspective and presents an analysis of attitudes to privacy and data protection among representatives of six Swedish governmental agencies. Ethical aspects of reasonable use and access to and control over personal data are discussed as well as the task of balancing these interests.


Brey, P., Ethical Aspects of Information Security and Privacy in: Security and Trust in Modern Data Management (eds. M. Petcovic, W. Jonker), Berlin Heidelberg New York: Springer, 2008.

Heeks, R., Implementing and Managing eGovernment – An International text, SAGE, London, 2006.

Heeks, R. and C. Stanforth, “Understanding eGovernment project trajectories from an actor-network perspective”, European Journal of Information Systems, 16, 2007.

The Cap Gemini Ernst & Young survey on electronic Public Services in Europe, 2006 and the “i2010 e-Government Action Plan: Accelerating e-Government in Europe for the Benefit of All” under; 2009-07-24