No happy birthday for online firm

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Online information and search firm Eniro didn’t exactly receive a lot of happy response after it suddenly started publishing the birthdays of all persons registered in their online telephone directories. Instead, thousands of Norwegians were furious over what they called an assault on their privacy, and they convinced Eniro Norge to beat a retreat.

“I think this is a real offense to personal privacy, when a company publishes the birthdays of 4.5 million Norwegians on the Internet without seeking their permission first,” ranted Christoffer Biong of the Liberal Party (Venstre) . He told newspaper Aftenposten Tuesday that he received a lot of support after he launched a protest against Eniro’s move on the website Facebook.

On Wednesday, Eniro Norge itself changed its mind. Faced with thousands of customers as angry as Biong, the birthday listings disappeared, just two days after they were first published.

Officials at Norway’s Data Inspectorate (Datatilsynet) had also received a flood of complaints. The agency is charged with ensuring the privacy of Norwegians through the processing of personal data. “Yes, we’ve had a lot of reaction from consumers,” said Ove Skaara, information director for the Data Inspectorate. “We had around 100 e-mails before noon, and that’s a lot.”

Fearing identity theft

There was reason for the concern: Norwegian residents’ all-important “personal number” (the equivalent of a US Social Security number) is made up of their birthdate and another five digits. Although Eniro is only publicizing the day and month of telephone customers’ birthdays, it can be fairly easy to find their year of birth in publicly available tax files.

Once combined, more than half of a Norwegian resident’s personal number can thus be publicly available, and that reveals not only their age but can expose them to identity theft.

Datatilsynet said that Eniro’s decision to publish the birthdays of everyone listed in the phone book is not illegal, and anyone objecting to such publication could log on to the online phone book’s “Min Side” page and manually remove it.

Surprised by all the complaints

Eniro officials were surprised by the negative reaction to the birthday listings. “We had received many requests from our users who wanted birthdays listed,” claimed Eniro’s information director Bård Hammervold.

He added that the birthday listings could help online phone book users distinguish persons with the same name. “And it’s a nice service that allows users to send a birthday greeting to someone they like,” he told website digi.no.

The outpouring of complaints, however, ultimately prompted Eniro to re-consider its decision. Even though similar listings reportedly have sparked little controversy in neighbouring Sweden, the company couldn’t ignore all the complaints in Norway.

“Based on the reaction we’ve had, we’ve chosen to listen to our users,” Hammervold told Aftenposten.no Wednesday. He claimed that some of the reaction Eniro received was positive, but the flood of complaints apparently was too much to risk offending other customers.