Ethical destruction? Privacy concerns regarding public records in Sweden, 1900–2015

The project studies legislation in Sweden concerning public records, with focus on the conflict between keeping and destroying records deemed to be menacing to privacy. Like few other issues concerning archives, this conflict evokes political disputes and is vivid all over the world. The overall aim is to analyse differing views of privacy concerns – an aspect of the relationship between individual and society as a whole – in a longer historical perspective, c. 1900–2015.

With the focus on records and archiving, the project connects the research field on the history of privacy concerns with that on contemporary heritage production. Against those that fear that mass accumulation of sensitive personal data cannot be safely controlled, many critical voices are concerned that people in the future will not be able to show evidences of misdeeds in the past, since the records serving as proof would have been destroyed as being threats to privacy.

The analysis will be made on two levels. The conflict between making records secret (but keeping them) and destroying them seems to have sharpened since the 1960s, and the core part of the project will be an in-depth examination of tensions between secrecy and outright destruction in that period concerning three categories of records – medical records, social security records and records obtained in certain forms of academic research including personal data, e.g. in sociology and medical research. Here, various sources will be used. Besides the rich material created in the state legislation process, where the opinions of various consultation bodies are included, the project will also use sources from central government authority archives and the press.

However, a more extensive survey will also be made on secrecy legislation during a longer time period, from c. 1900 onwards. Here, the project aims at catching the main overall tendencies concerning the handling of public records deemed menacing of privacy reasons from c. 1900 until today. Largely, it will consist in an analysis of the development of the secrecy legislation. The main reason is to problematise the assumption that privacy concerns were almost “born” in the 1960s with the computerised society.,,With this project, changes and continuities over time in the views on privacy and ethical destruction will appear more clearly. Preliminary findings show that specific groups of agents such as archivists, researchers, journalists and pro-privacy politicians tend to hold differing opinions that can be categorised as certain ideal-typical “interests” for privacy, economics, transparency, heritage and academic research. The examination of concrete agents and discussions leading to various decisions and legislations can possibly demonstrate complexities and conflicts over time, as well as showing those things and ideas where there were a general agreement at a given time.

The project is funded by The Swedish Research Council, and the research will be performed by Samuel Edquist. It starts in autumn 2016 and lasts for three years. One monograph and at least two peer-reviewed articles are planned.

Researchplan 2015