Norway’s immigration agency UDI is contacting five people who’ve sought residence permits in Norway and eight of its own employees, after documents containing personal information about all 13 of them were found in discarded office furniture. The lack of control over such sensitive information constitutes a violation of Norwegian privacy law, which UDI is acknowledging.
UDI is an important state directorate for all the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve tried to move to Norway over the years. It handles all forms of asylum and immigration issues, along with deciding on the issuance of vital work permits, temporary and permanent residence permits and, ultimately, citizenship. In doing so, it demands, collects and is entrusted with highly personal information that must be supplied by all applicants.
Ingeborg Grimsmo, communications chief at UDI (Utlendingsdirektoratet), calls its recent violation in handling such information “an extremely unfortunate deviation” in routines that were set up in connection with UDI’s move from its former headquarters in downtown Oslo to new offices in the Norwegian capital.
“We of course take this very seriously, and all those affected are being contacted and alerted to the violation of their privacy,” Grimsmo told NewsInEnglish.no.
She was responding to further questions after newspaper Aftenposten first reported about the “deviation” last week. The newspaper had been alerted to the wayward documents by a man in Halden, who found them in a discarded filing cabinet that he’d recently acquired at a recycling firm in Fredrikstad, south of Oslo.
UDI had turned over its old office furniture, after its employees had been instructed last winter to clean out their contents, to the recycling firm. Aftenposten reported that the firm initially tried to sell the small filing cabinets but ended up giving them away for free.
Found copies of passports, pay negotiations…
The Halden man, who didn’t want his identity to be revealed, took home nine of the cabinets and told Aftenposten most were empty. In one of them, however, he found a pile of papers including applications for permanent residence in Norway with copies of passport information, letters of recommendation and other personal documents. He also found personal information on UDI employees, including evaluations of their work performance, sick leave and pay negotiations.
“I thought it was uncomfortable” he told Aftenposten, “but I think it seemed like such a serious violation of professional confidentiality obligations, and how personal information is handled, that it needed to be revealed. I’m glad it wasn’t my personal information found there, to put it that way.”
Stickers found inside the furniture left no doubt that it came from UDI’s offices. Grimsmo confirmed that it had been moved out of UDI’s old offices that were emptied in February, and meant to be recycled. The leader of the recycling firm also confirmed that it received furniture from 800 work stations at UDI that had been cleared out by a moving firm.
Systems failed ‘at several levels’
Grimsmo conceded that three main things went wrong during the process. She told Aftenposten that all employees, who were working from home offices during the Corona pandemic at the time, were supposed to come into the main office to pack up and secure the contents of their desks and offices. Those gathering the furniture for recycling were supposed to go through it all and make sure no papers were left behind. Those receiving the furniture were also supposed to go through it before offering it to the public.
She said UDI has since taken contact with the recycling firm and asked them to go through all its remaining furniture once again, which it’s doing. She said UDI had also contacted Norway’s Datatilsynet, the state agency in charge of regulating and enforcing privacy issues, “since this is a violation of personal privacy.”
There reportedly haven’t been any additional cases of wayward documents being found in the furniture, but the mistakes made pose the threat of ID-theft or other consequences privacy violations. Any papers found by the recycling firm reportedly will be destroyed. The man who found the pile of papers involving 13 people turned them over to Aftenposten, which in turn delivered them back to UDI.
“Fortunately for us, the documents were retrieved quickly, without anyone else having access to them,” Grimsmo told NewsInEnglish.no. She made no attempts to gloss over the embarrassing “weakness” in UDI’s routines.
“This is a case of systems failing at several levels,” she said. It remained unclear how those caught in the system failure were reacting to it, since their identities were not revealed.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The undersigned is an immigrant herself, who has been through Norway’s lengthy and demanding residence and citizenship process.