Page last updated at 07:46 GMT, Thursday, 22 October 2009 08:46 UK

Nosy friends scan Norwegian tax secrets

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News

Every year, Norway's tax authorities publish details about people's income and wealth, and every year sifting through the data gets easier.

Graph comparing the tax of Morten Harket and Jens Stoltenberg

In what has become an annual ritual, the newspapers fill their pages with articles about the country's highest earners, whether in politics, industry or in showbiz.

Many care more about how their own financial fortunes compare with those of their neighbours, friends and family, and again; nothing is secret.

Searching through the tax authorities' database is easy. The websites of every self-respecting media organisation have their own search engines where typing in the first and the last name of anyone you know will produce detailed information.

Entertainment v politics

Aftenposten, the main broadsheet, operates a system where the curious are rewarded with information about an individual's income - for example Morten Harket, famous from the band A-ha.

We took part in opening up the system, but now the principle of openness is totally out of proportion
Trine Skei Grane of the green party Venstre

The search also reveals how much tax Mr Harket paid and the value of his investments - as well as his post code and the name of his local tax authority.

In addition, the paper has developed graphics that show how much he earns relative to national and regional averages. Last year he apparently raked in about 1.75 million kroner ($315,000; £190,000), 658% more than the average Norwegian.

Type in another name, for instance Jens Stoltenberg, and comparisons between the two are displayed in neat bar charts, revealing that Mr Harket earns rather more than the country's prime minister, yet pays rather less tax.

Check on Facebook

Obviously, not all is revealed. Many of the country's wealthiest are listed with zero income and zero investments, largely because they have tucked their cash away in tax-efficient companies or trusts, or because they keep their funds abroad.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Fremskrittspartiet leder Siv Jensen
Mr Stoltenberg and Ms Jensen disagree about whether the system works.

Mr Harket's wealth, for example, is listed as zero.

The listed income of ordinary people is also often lower than their actual earnings because tax benefits relating to child benefits or mortgage relief reduce the sum.

But the level of detail is nevertheless remarkable. It is, for example, possible to find out whether an individual is a member of a company's board of directors, and his or her connections with others on the same boards.

Combine the information with the services offered by the directory inquiries and you can click on a mapping tool that reveals where people live, including detailed maps and photographs of their houses.

Though compared with the scope offered by social networking sites, such as Facebook, all this looks old fashioned.

Tabloid newspaper Dagbladet is offering readers the chance to automatically check and compare the income of their Facebook friends and is even offering the service as an iPhone application.

Identity theft and bullying

Not surprisingly, this level of openness has attracted harsh criticism.

Identification theft expert Christian Meyer is among those who point out that the system is open for abuse by criminals. Mr Meyer is also critical of the way the media takes advantage of the tax authorities' openness to attract readers.

"A government department should give instructions to the tax authorities about this, and quickly," he tells Aftenposten.

Several politicians agree.

"We took part in opening up the system, but now the principle of openness is totally out of proportion," Trine Skei Grane of the green party Venstre tells the paper.

"Children are being bullied after their parents' income is compared, and it is possible to track foster children and foster parents," chips in Siv Jensen, leader of the right-wing party Fremskrittpartiet.

Prime Minister Stoltenberg remains committed to the system, however, insisting that systems are in place to prevent the system from being abused.

Though when told by Ms Jensen that a company operates a service where people can pay about 30 pence to find out how much he earns, he balks.

"That people pay three kroner to find out how much I earn is a matter for concern, as they could find that out for free," he says.

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