A Swedish website has published the names and addresses of everyone who has run afoul of the law – even if they have been acquitted.
On a Swedish site, you end up in the pillory faster than you’re convicted. Image: dpa
Does the new tenant have a criminal record? Does the work colleague have a criminal record? Who in the street or village had actually had any dealings with the justice system? On Monday, a new commercial web service went online in Sweden that satisfies such curiosities for a fee. 48 hours later it was hacked and personal data of over 100,000 people could be viewed by anyone.
Lexbase is the name of the search service that can be used to locate anyone who has been convicted of a crime in a Swedish court in the last 5 years. Whether for rape, tax evasion or a traffic offense.
Those responsible emphasize the service function: after all, they say, everyone has a legitimate interest in knowing whether they can trust their new nanny or a handyman. "And if a woman wants to go on a date, she may find out that the man has five previous convictions for rape and abuse," explained Pontus Ljunggren, a lawyer, spokesman and co-owner of Lexbase: "We offer security, provide information on the basis of which people can make better choices."
But above all, the operators want to make money. Although the search function, in which one can determine whether there is a "hit" via a map, an address field or with the help of the individual person number that every resident of Sweden has, is free of charge, if one wants to know the name and download the verdict, it costs the equivalent of ten euros.
Victims’ data also accessible
However, all persons against whom there have been any criminal proceedings at all are initially registered as "hits". The fact that they may have been acquitted is only revealed to those who pay. If the verdict has not become final at all, because an appeal has been filed, or if it has been overturned in a further instance, Lexbase cannot yet register this at all. Even the deceased and people who have served their sentences continue to be pilloried in this way. In addition, the names and dates of the victims of crimes become public.
Which is why there was immediately a lot of criticism in the media and social networks. And the lawyers’ association spoke of a business model that spreads slander. But according to an initial statement from the data protection authority, Lexbase is probably perfectly legal.
Transparent since 1766
Sweden has a comprehensive principle of public access, which has been enshrined in the constitution since 1766. All citizens have the right to inspect files and documents of the authorities. This includes all judgments. Anyone who is interested can obtain complete and non-anonymized copies of judgments from the courts or have them sent to them. "The principle of public access is, after all, a democratic principle," Ljunggren defended the service earlier this week: "We’ve just made the whole thing a little more modern."
However, a day after he also denied any "moral or ethical responsibility for relatives" of those denounced by Lexbase, the lawyer wanted nothing more to do with the service: For "personal reasons," because of alleged death threats against him and his family. And twelve hours later, the website was hacked and a file containing addresses, personal numbers and countries of origin of over 100,000 people registered with Lexbase could be downloaded from the sites Mega and AnonFiles. This is all the more problematic for those affected, most of whom can now be identified, as there is no distinction at all between convicted and acquitted persons in this data.
Sue for damages!
To stop such a service, either the Swedish constitution would have to be changed – which Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has already rejected in the meantime – or as many people as possible who have been wrongly convicted would have to go to court and take legal action for damages, says Martin Brinnen, a lawyer at the data protection authority: "Then it might be so expensive for the operators that they shut down the site."
On Thursday morning, Lexbase was off the net for the time being. Temporarily. The provider blocked access because of security problems. Hacked could namely also the credit card and PayPal data of users who have paid for the service. Once these security problems have been resolved, Lexbase is expected to go back online.