Norway's national tax office erroneously sent CD-ROMs crammed with the 2006 tax returns of nearly four million people living in Norway to national newspapers, radios and tv stations, news agency AFP reports.
Although tax statements have been open to public scrutiny in Norway since 1863, the social security number of each citizen remains highly confidential.
According to the tax authorities, the documents can only be opened by using a secret code and so damage may be limited. Norwegian Finance Minister Kristin Halvorsen described the glitch nonetheless as "extremely serious".
In 2002 the national tax office in Norway also shocked the nation when the financial details of all Norwegian taxpayers were published on the internet. Until then it was only possible to see other people's figures by applying in person at a tax office. The head of the Norwegian data protection authority immediately asked for the practice to be stopped. However, it took almost a full year before the government, led by then-prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, passed a law restricting online access to a maximum of three weeks from the day of publication.
The latest tax blooper happened on the eve of a historic transatlantic pact between Norway and the US to share data about the private lives of its citizens. Travel plans, email addresses, mobile telephone numbers and even surfing habits will be made available to American security services in an effort to combat terrorism.
The Norwegian government says it wants assurances that the information given will be protected in a secure manner. Privacy advocates and rights groups in Europe have strongly criticised such deals with Washington. ®