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Pin numbers get prickly reception

The controversy over Pin numbers continues


Government plans to issue Swiss residents with universal personal identification numbers (Pin) for administrative purposes have come under fire.

The country’s data protection commissioner and several political parties have expressed concerns about possible violations of privacy rights.

"There is a real risk that all the data on any specific individual could be accessed through a universal Pin number," said Hanspeter Thür, head of the Federal Data Protection Commission.

He added that trying to justify the move on administrative grounds without giving further details was simply unacceptable.

The data protection commissioner stressed, however, that he was not opposed to the idea of a standardised personal code for use in certain areas such as social security.

Here, it could replace the current 11-digit number for the state old-age pension fund and be used for other kinds of insurance schemes.

Parties sceptical

Many of the country’s main political parties have lined up to oppose the government’s plans.

The centre-left Social Democrats and the Greens say they do not understand the government’s motives, accusing ministers of performing a U-turn on the issue.

The rightwing Swiss People’s Party has sided with the data protection commissioner, while the centre-right Christian Democrats and the Radicals say strict security measures would be needed to prevent abuses, according to the Berner Zeitung newspaper.

The Swiss authorities have rejected criticism that such a system would be more prone to abuse, arguing that the risks could be minimised by legal, technical and organisational measures.

Thür said his commission would reiterate its opposition to the plans in the run-up to a debate on the issue in parliament. He also pointed out apparent contradictions within the federal administration.

The Federal Statistics Office says a universal Pin code is not needed for the next nationwide census due in 2010.

Yet the interior ministry has insisted in the past that a universal Pin number is necessary for compiling statistics, and to facilitate contact between citizens and the authorities.

More efficient

Even the Statistics Office admits the current system of identification numbers for use at local, cantonal and federal levels is inefficient and difficult to manage.

"The primary beneficiary of a universal Pin would be the population and the administration," noted the Statistics Office in a report on its website.

It added that such a code could serve as the basis for e-voting and other legally binding activities over the internet.

Eleven states in Europe have already introduced universal codes for their citizens. In Scandinavian countries, which pioneered their introduction 30 years ago, universal Pin numbers have had a positive impact, according to the Statistics Office.

A survey published by St Gallen University in March last year found that Switzerland was lagging behind other countries when it came to online services offered by the government.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Key facts

The personal identification number (Pin) would replace the current 11-digit code for old age pension scheme.
In addition it would speed up data exchange between various official registers.
11 countries in Europe have already introduced such a code.

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In brief

The Swiss cabinet wants to introduce a universal personal identification number (Pin) in an effort to make the administration more efficient.

The federal data protection commissioner has warned of the increased risks of abuse if such a code is introduced.

Parliament is due to decide on the government proposals as part of an amendment to the law on the state old-age pension scheme.

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