The Swedish Social Security Number Issue

By Professor Jacob Palme,
Stockholm University and KTH Technical University

First version: 6 August 1998   Last revision: 6 August 1998


  This is a short overview of the issue and debate regarding the social security number in Sweden. It has been criticized for causing invasion of privacy, but is getting more and more accepted.  

Usage of the Swedish Social Security Number

  The actual name of this number in Sweden is "personnummer" which directly translated to English would be "Personal Number". And this name more correctly shows its wide usage in Sweden.

Everyone living in Sweden must have a social security number. For people born in Sweden, the number is specified at birth, immigrants are given a number if they stay longer than as tourists. The number is composed of the date of birth plus three digits plus one check digit. The gender is indicated by the third digit, even for women, odd for men. These three digits also sometimes, but not always, contain information about the region of birth.

Also juridical persons (companies) get personal numbers.

Here are some of the major uses of the number:

Tax authorities use the number in all their communication about individuals, for example when an employer sends tax money, deducted from the wage. One effect of this is that illegal immigrants cannot have work, for which they pay taxes. Thus, illegal immigrants can only work in black market (untaxed) jobs.

Medical organizations use it to store information about the health status, to reduce the risk of mixing up health information about two individuals.

The public insurance system uses the number in handling of insurance payments and collecting information to compute future old age pensions.

Most other government organizations use the number to securely identify individuals.

Many private companies use it when storing information about individuals and their accounts, for example banks and insurance companies. This is not mandatory, but most do it. Some of them even use the number as part of the account number itself.

When you pay with a credit card, the social security number is used to check your identity.

The number, together with your address, is stored in a government data base available to organizations who want to find your address.

Pros and cons of the social security number



  • Individuals are more securely identified, reducing the risk of mixing up two persons. Example: Mixing health records, mixing tax information.
  • Individuals do not have to remember as many different account numbers. For example, if you go into a bank, and have forgotten your account number, the bank can use your personal number to find your account number for you.
  • Organizations and government agencies can easier keep track of people, for example if you have moved and forgotten to notify them of your new address.


  • The number can be used to collate information about a person from different sources in a way which is an invasion of privacy. This is illegal according to Swedish law (except where specially permitted), but can still of course be done.
  • In some cases, where government agencies have used it to perform collation of information, and the effect has not been so good. For example, the income tax authorities and the sickness benefit organizations have tried to use it to check against people illegally earning an income and having sickness benefits at the same time. However, the rules for what is allowed and not allowed are complex, and simplistic use of the personal number has caused undue harassment of people in some cases.
  • Another case of overuse is cases where a person, for some reason, wants certain mail to another address than his home address. One example is that my wife has been giving Christmas gifts by saving money in accounts for her brother's children. She wants the bank account statements to her, but the bank sends them to the children because that address is indicated with the personal number of the children. We have asked the bank to correct this, and it works some time, but once a year, the bank updates its account address information with the government data base, and the address gets wrong again. (One can discuss whether this is a disadvantage or an advantage. One can argue that the child should be permitted to get these records!)
  • In special cases, mostly women persecuted by their former husbands, etc., the number has helped the persecutors finding the persecuted person. There is a procedure for changing the social security number of people persecuted in this way, in order to protect them.


  During the 1970s, the number was much debated and criticized, because of the potential risk for invasion of privacy. As a result of this debate, the Swedish Data Act  Rating was written, which regulates how computerized personal information may be used.

During the 1980s, as a result of this, government agencies tried to reduce the usage of the number. Private companies (banks, insurance companies, employers) were asked to stop using the number, especially making the number part of their account numbers. This was however not enforced strenuously, and the companies complained of the high cost, and risks, involved with not using the number.

As a result of this, in the 1990s, the number is again getting more accepted. The government never succeeded in getting neither one of the largest private insurance companies nor one of the largest banks to stop using the number as part of their account numbers.


  As people get more accustomed to computers, their fear of their misuse gets smaller. I personally feel that to me, the benefits strongly outweighs the problems.

This conclusion may be different in other countries. Sweden is a small stable country with less crime than many other countries. Misuse is probably easier to find out about, and stop, than in other countries.

Other documents of interest.  Rating

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