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In Finland, all it takes is a phone call to find out how much your neighbour earned last year

As part of Finland’s celebrated transparency, any member of the public can call up the local tax office to enquire about a total stranger’s annual income and tax contributions. The annual orgy of financial voyeurism might raise eyebrows in other parts of the world, but it remains an important national event in Finland.

Puhelu.
Image: Derrick Frilund / Yle

The first day of November has become a red-letter day for avid followers of the fate and fortunes of the local glitterati as well as captains of industry and the political class. That’s because it’s the day when the Finnish Tax Administration Vero, releases the income and taxation data of all individual taxpayers.

Over the years media coverage of the big reveal has intensified, making it easier for individuals to ogle the financial information of complete strangers. But not everyone makes it to the list of the country’s or even any city’s top earners.

For people who feel they need to know the details of their neighbours’ earned and capital income, Vero makes it that much easier by offering a phone service designed to provide information about taxpayers’ income and tax contributions.

In such cases, the caller would be well advised to have on hand the name and location of the person whose records they are requesting. To be on the safe side, the caller should also know the person's full name and the year of birth.

Terminals replacing phone calls

However, tax officials have noted a decline in the use of the phone service for fishing out income and tax information. Apart from heavy media coverage, the availability of customer terminals at certain local tax offices means that people don’t have to place what might feel like an awkward call.

Because the terminals are available mainly in larger municipalities, data diggers might find themselves having to travel to far-flung towns to find the information they desire.

However even in southern Finland, some smaller and medium-sized towns lack the devices, and places like Mikkeli in the southeast don not have a customer terminal. Mikkeli residents would have to travel to Savonlinna, Jyväskylä, Lappeenranta or Kouvola to use the machine.

Currently, Finnish residents can prospect for tax and income information at roughly 70 customer terminals in 28 locations. The main tax administration office has 51 terminals, but not all of them will be available for use on Wednesday, when 2016 tax and income data are released.

Terminals ideal for searching for multiple records

Some towns such as Mikkeli gave up the terminals in 2014 in favour of a pilot of a public administration customer service point. However the tax administration’s publishing system does not serve those stations, so it is not possible to use them to access taxpayers’ tax and income records.

"The reason is data security," said Pirjo Korvola of the tax administration’s personal taxation unit.

Although the hotline and the customer terminal provide the same service, Korvola said that the terminal is handier for multiple searches. At the same time, she noted, customers use the phone service less often, partly because of more media coverage and urbanisation.

"People don’t know their neighbours the same as they did before," she added.

The tax official said that the number of terminals provided by the tax authority has increased and now stands at 102. The reason is a bid to get people to manage their tax matters online.

Reporters expected on terminals in Helsinki

Large media operations order the data they need for Wednesday’s big tax carnival in advance. Otherwise Vero hands over the information to the media on a memory stick or via secure email on tax day.

On 1 November customer terminals in major cities will be reserved for use by the media for one hour between 8.00 and 9.00am. Reporters can check data in Vallila in Helsinki, as well as in Järvenpää, Kuopio, Kouvola, Turku, Vaasa, Oulu, Tampere and Maarianhamn.

Members of the public will only be able browse through tax and income at two customer terminals at the Kluuvi shopping centre in downtown Helsinki.

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