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The worst data leak you never heard of and what if could mean for you

States collecting data on their citizens and employees is a not new thing. To be a functioning state in the modern world means you have to have big databases of government employees, tax documentation, voters list, criminal records, vehicle register poll, immigration data…. The list goes on. Activists, scholars, and experts regularly challenge the state on the scope of information collected and when privacy should triumph the state desire to know more about us. The main focus of this critique is of course the state that gathers information about its citizens. Having so much information allows greater social, political and economic control. The critics’ major concerns are two. The first is that the state itself will exploit this abundant information to suppress opposition, political rivals, or different ethnic or other groups within society. The second, is the spillover of information from those vast databases to third party that will exploit it for personal gain.

A series of events that happened in Sweden in 2015, and which are only starting to unfold, show that we should be gravely concern about the second option. The Swedish Transport Agency moved all of its data to an IBM cloud, just to find out later that there is no cloud. They transferred all their records, most of them are private and classified, to IBM's subcontractor NCR in Serbia. Security experts link this subcontractor with Russian agencies. Of known leaks of governments data across the world, this one is probably the worst thus far.

The data that was leaked included names, photos, and home addresses of nearly all Swedish citizens. The following extremely sensitive data have been breached:

  • Names, photos, and home addresses of everyone in the military and police register, including classified personnel.

  • Names, photos, and home addresses of everybody in a witness relocation program or who has been given a protected identity for other reasons.

  • Type, model, weight, and any defects of any and all government and military vehicles, including their operator’s identity.

  • The weight capacity of all roads and bridges in Sweden.

Obviously, this information exposes private citizens to extortion, identity theft, fraud and other criminal opportunities. Additionally, it created a significant national security threat for Sweden as its security personnel became exposed to foreign coercion. You cannot fly a jet fighter if the pilot was coerced not to fly it.

There is a case to be made for the association between better governance and better data. Governments invest vast resources in surveilling their citizen and collecting data on their activities. In the light of the recent US administration request from states for all voter data there a few things we should take in mind. First and foremost, we must make sure that this information is well guarded. But we must also ask if these data are required from us in the first place.

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