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Ombudsman criticises gov’t plans to expand agency access to banking data

Data Protection Ombudsman Reijo Aarnio says new plans to expand the rights of public agencies to access banking data could pose a threat to people's security.

Reijo Aarnio, tietosuojavaltuutettu.
Finland's Data Protection Ombudsman Reijo Aarnio Image: Ronnie Holmberg / Yle

Finland's Data Protection Ombudsman Reijo Aarnio is concerned about Finland's current obsession with creating national registries. An increasing amount of Finnish residents' medical history information is already being stored in national databases, while the government is looking to create a national income registry to help tax authorities stay up to speed. Work on creating a registry of people's credit history has also reportedly begun.

Aarnio said the creators of all these registries have not considered the true impact the databases could have on individuals.

"It seems that the political governance [of the database expansion plans] is disjointed and they are having a hard time seeing the big picture," Aarnio said.

Earlier this month, the daily Helsingin Sanomat reported (in Finnish) that government's plans to expand the rights of authorities to review the bank details of the country's residents significantly outpace EU directives.

The paper argued that the Finnish finance ministry's proposal to expand the rights of several agencies to examine bank details of residents clearly exceeds requirements issued by the European Union to combat crimes like money laundering.

Agency access to banking information

According to the proposal, authorities including the police, tax authorities and the Social Insurance Institution Kela will in future be able to digitally access the bank account information of individuals.

The aim of the expanded access, according to the proposal, is to give authorities examining cases of possible money laundering quick access to banking details.

The law proposal includes a provision for authorities to view a person's bank balance and all transactions made during a period of the previous three years.

The types of information to which the various agencies will have access depends on their individual authority levels.

For example, the police already have the right to access to peoples' banking information when they are targets of preliminary investigations. Meanwhile tax authorities also already have rights to carry out extensive analyses of bank accounts when they examine people's bank transactions from countries considered to be tax havens.

Kela could get broader bank account access

If the proposal becomes law, Kela will have expanded abilities to examine the bank accounts of social support recipients.

Currently Kela is able to access such information directly from the banks in cases of suspected welfare fraud, for example.

The law proposal's premise is that authorities would not abuse their expanded rights to access such information. But experts that Helsingin Sanomat interviewed told the paper there were already several incidents of government agency workers overstepping their authority in such matters.

Critics of the proposal say that expanding the abilities of Kela employees to view banking details of individuals adds to a growing group of government agencies which will have access to the data.

Aarnio said that people in Finland appear to have a strong faith in various types of data registries, and that news of the expanded reach of government agencies don't seem to bother most people too much.

Data protection advocacy groups, however, have expressed concern about the government's plans.

Safety measures built-in, but critics fear abuse

Privacy laws and the EU's data protection regulations will narrow access to peoples' data by limiting agency workers' searches to the relevant required information - but decisions on the scope of the data searches are left up to the agencies themselves.

However, any requests for bank account information by authorities will leave an electronic trail, which supporters of the proposal say will thwart system abuse.

Experts have expressed concern that such restrictions may not necessarily work in practice, and that it is impossible to ensure that extremely detailed and sensitive information won't fall into the wrong hands.

Bank sector lobby group Finance Finland told Helsingin Sanomat that the planned monitoring system is not credibly backed up by law. Instead, the group suggested that Finland should create an entity that centrally monitors the use of bank data by agencies.

Some data banks useful - particularly medical ones

Some are seeing advantages to the increasing compilation of data. For medical researchers, access to large numbers of lab results and medical histories can be an invaluable resource in developing new drugs and treatments.

And proponents of the proposal say tax evaders are more easily caught when their transactions are less obscured. Additionally newer types of financial crimes - like ones related to cryptocurrencies - are also easier to tackle.

Aarnio said that extensive government databases and registries are not always the best way to address problems, however. He gave the proposed credit history database as an example. While the aim of setting up a central credit registry is purportedly to prevent consumers' over-indebtedness, he said it appears to be more of an attempt to crack down on reckless money lenders rather than actually serve residents.

"It seems as if the solution to creditors not obeying the law is to put the whole population into a database," Aarnio said.

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