Today sees the opening of the second annual Norwegian ‘watch your neighbour’ season with the publication of last year’s tax returns. Some reasonably honest people may find it interesting, whilst others unreasonably dishonest individuals could start rubbing their hands.
A minefield of information
The idea behind making income, tax paid, and personal wealth available for public scrutiny is to make fraud more difficult to conceal. The practice has existed since the 1800s, and the details are released by the Norwegian Tax Administration (Skatteetaten).
It also gives the media and criminals a field day, despite measures in recent years to try to limit the amount of information people can access. The figures are online for years, with taxpayers’ full names, dates of birth, postcodes. This worries some members of the legal profession.
“Norwegian legislators have established a system allowing a mass release of details and personal information. That is the main problem. The availability is comprehensive and is searchable on the Internet anytime,” Bettina Banoun, lawyer, Doctor of Law, and chairperson of the Bar Association’s (Advokatforeningen) tax committee tells NRK.
She goes on to say this encourages many types of criminality, including ID-theft, and threatening letters.
The Bar Association has also criticised the system before, arguing it does nothing to prevent tax fraud.
“[We] believe there is no longer a need for disclosure. There used to be a need for this before the time of the tax return, where income was determined by discretion. [Today’s] comprehensive measures to ascertain income mean there is no longer a need for neighbours or the press to check whether the information is correct. Today's complex tax system, with a different concept of income and various deductions, means reading the tax lists will not uncover any fraud,” they write.
An entertaining offence?
It is not possible ask for the information to be withheld. Banoun believes publishing the details could contravene European law.
“The legality of the practice can be questioned in relation to human rights. The issue is whether the public tax rolls violate Article 8 of the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights), a provision that gives the right to respect for privacy,” she says.
The Data Inspectorate (Datatilysnet) shares Banoun’s view, and writes it is concerned the information may be misused for profit.
“It is against key privacy principles that information each Norwegian citizen is obliged to submit can be used for entertainment of offered for sale via mobile in the form of SMS services [or can] be linked to other existing web services, or similar.”
Stig Berge Matthiesen at the University of Bergen’s psychological faculty believes being able to access the information appeals to peoples’ sense of justice.
“People are curious, social beings. At the same time, we are a very equality-orientated society where we are concerned that things should be predictable and fair. Inspecting the tax lists is part of [our] social compass, where we check we are not underpaid or treated unfairly,” he tells NRK.
Meanwhile, Bjørn Erik Thon, Director of the Data Inspectorate calls for change.
“Tax revenue is a matter between the individual and the administration...We are not completely against disclosure of tax information, but it must be restricted and made much smaller in scale than today. The present system only satisfies our nosiness.”
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