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Public access and secrecy

The principle of public access to official documents guarantees transparency and is therefore an important cornerstone of our democracy. It enables free social debate on the strengths and weakness of government authorities by allowing general insight and control of their activities. Freedom of speech and the right to access public documents is not entirely unrestricted. The Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act specifies to what extent disclosure is prohibited.

Public document

The principle of public access to official documents applies to all public documents and is of major significance to the authorities' contacts with each other and their way of interacting with the citizens. The Freedom of the Press Act contains provisions on what kinds of documents shall be considered to be public and how such documents shall be made available to anyone who wants to study them. A public document is usually a document held by a public authority that is considered to have been received or drawn up there. According to Freedom of the Press Act, everyone has the right to access public documents. It applies to all Swedish citizens, and in some cases also applies to individuals who are not Swedish citizens.

There are no requirements for how a request for documents or information should be designed, or how and where it should be submitted to an authority. A request can be made orally or in writing.

To protect certain vital interests, there are limits to the right of access to public documents. Provisions regarding a prohibition on releasing a public document in certain cases are included in the Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act (2009:400). Secrecy in relation to Försäkringskassan’s management of cases is governed by the provisions of Chapter 28 Section 1 of the Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act.

An authority must promptly consider whether a document can be disclosed. This involves taking a position on whether it is the case of a public document, and performing a secrecy assessment.

Anyone who requests access to a public document held by a public authority has the right to be anonymous, but there are exceptions. The authority may ask the person about their identity or the purpose of the request if this is necessary for the authority to examine whether there are obstacles to disclosing the document. In situations where the seeker does not want to disclose who they are or the purpose of the request, this may result in the document or information not be disclosed.

If a document is public, the general rules is that it must immediately or as soon as possible be provided in an authority's premises free of charge. There, the person who requested the document has the right to read or transcribe it. Often it is not possible to access the document in this way. The person also has the right to obtain single copies of the document sent to them free of charge.

If certain data in a document is confidential, this is blacked out in the disclosed copy.
Under the Fees Ordinance (1992:191) an authority must charge for copies of public documents involving ten or more copy pages.

If Försäkringskassan determines that a requested document or information cannot be disclosed, or if it is disclosed with a so-called secrecy restriction (where the authority can control the use of the data), the person who requested the document must be informed that it is possible to receive a refusal from the authority.

Försäkringskassan can refuse disclosure if

  • the document does not exist
  • the document is not public
  • the data is confidential.

A refusal must contain a justification and information on how the decision can be appealed.
There are also possibilities for Försäkringskassan to correct or amend a decision.

In order for it to be possible to appeal the decision, for example, not to disclose a public document, the refusal has to be issued by someone in the authority who is authorised to do so (this is usually not an administrative officer). It is not enough with an oral statement.

Only the person who requested the document and was refused disclosure can appeal the refusal. The appeal must be submitted in writing to the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce. It must be addressed to the Chamber of Commerce but submitted to Försäkringskassan within three weeks from the date the decision was received.

 

Freedom of speech and information

Another aspect of the principle of public access to official documents is freedom of speech and information. These fundamental rights and freedoms are established in the Constitution Act and the Freedom of the Press Act.

Freedom of speech concerns “freedom in speech, text and imagery or otherwise conveying information and expressing thoughts, opinions and feelings”. The freedom of information provides "the freedom of collecting and receiving information and otherwise studying the statements of others".

Individual's legal right to publish information

Public employees must also be given the opportunity to take part in the public debate. This is done through the legal right of an individual to publish information. This means that an employee of an authority has the right to release classified information for publication in mass media, such as a newspaper. Anyone who releases information has the right to remain anonymous and the authority may not research who they are. However, an employee may not disclose documents regarding private individuals.

It is important to know that this freedom is a right, but not an obligation for an employee to disclose information. It is up to the employee to decide whether they think it is appropriate or justifiable to release information for publication.

Restrictions in this freedom are set forth in certain cases in the Freedom of the Press Act and the Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act. One example is that the legal right to publish information does not allow a switchboard operator to disclose what they heard through their job. They are bound by professional secrecy and may not disclose information. For them, what is known as absolute secrecy applies.

 

Secrecy

Anyone who becomes aware of a classified piece of information through their employment at an authority or their participation in its operations is obliged to observe secrecy both during their employment and once they have left the position. This also applies to most contractors, such as interpreters and translators. The regulations regarding secrecy are in the Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act (also referred to as OSL). For Försäkringskassan employees, there is a regulation in Chapter 28 Section 1 of the OSL regarding secrecy in insurance matters. In the OSL in particular, there are also regulations that allow employees to disclose information to e.g. other authorities in certain circumstances. There are exceptions where secrecy does not apply, for example to an individual who is a party of a case.

For Försäkringskassan and its employees, the Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act means that information on someone's personal circumstances that is found in various types of cases is classified if it can be assumed that the person the information concerns would suffer damage if the information were disclosed. This also applies to closely-related persons. The term “closely-related person” refers to spouses, live-in partners, children and close relatives.

Secrecy protects data on someone's health status or other personal circumstances. In principle, the term “personal circumstances” covers all information about a person, such as civil status, address, work capacity and medical diagnosis. Financial circumstances such as sickness benefit qualifying income and sickness benefit fall under the term personal circumstances.

If someone requests access to a document or information in a social insurance case, Försäkringskassan must perform a detriment assessment. This involves determining what type of information is being requested, and then whether disclosing the information could be considered to be detrimental to the person concerned or closely related persons. The starting point for this assessment is how the concerned person would perceive it, hypothetically. If it is not possible to presume that the person would be harmed by the disclosure, the information is public and can be disclosed to the person requesting it.

In order to determine whether it can be the person will be harmed, it may sometimes be necessary to know who is requesting the information and why it is being requested.

Details on name, age, personal identity number, civil status and address are, in general, not confidential under social security secrecy. But even a normally harmless piece of information could reveal something disadvantageous about an individual. A person can be presumed to be harmed if, for example, an address is disclosed indicating that they were admitted for care in a home for alcoholics, a psychiatric hospital, a special youth home or a similar care facility. Information on the person's profession and employer is generally not confidential.

A party in a case normally has the right to access material found in their own case. It may be an individual who wishes to access information in their own insurance case. This is already dictated by provisions in the Administrative Procedure Act. In general, secrecy does not hinder a party's access to documents and information in their case. If the party is not permitted to access the information, they should still be informed of information in the documents that is relevant to them protecting their interests.

In certain situations, a piece of information can be disclosed even though it is confidential. For example, Försäkringskassan is obliged to provide information to other public authorities.

The person can consent to the disclosure of confidential information that concerns them. This applies both to disclosure to other public authorities and to private individuals. This may be appropriate during so-called health insurance status meetings. The consent if voluntary.