How isolationistic overvalidations lead to systematic exclusion and chaos in Icelandic bureaucracy

On ethnocentrism

Ethnocentrism is a word I only learned a couple of years ago, when I was working with people who had a background in sociology and political science at an office in the outskirts of Beirut.

In the context of technology, it describes the phenomenon of designing systems based on the values and conventions of your own culture — which leads to exceptions to those rules being considered edge cases, witch then leads to systematic exclusion of those that don’t fit in with the conceived norms.

This leads to those systems becoming xenophobic, transphobic and misogynistic — especially when relied on in the public sector.

The Icelandic name-number system and the beginning of the computer age

This is how the old name-number identification scheme in Iceland originated. This integer-based system was adapted in the 1950’s as the equipment of the time wasn’t able to order items alphabetically.

And I say equipment, because this was a collection of different contraptions, centred around an IBM 405 electric punched card accounting machine. The first actual computer didn’t arrive until 1964!

Well — the 405 did support sorting strings by any alphabet, as long as it was the English one, so a solution needed to be developed.

Each known first name and last name received an integer based index number, based on its position in the alphabet. The punch-card based IBM systems, which were the first of its kind in the country would then be able to process data on the citizens and other residents of the country more efficiently than any humans.

As one would assume, Iceland, just having received full independence from the King of Denmark after the second world war — and as an island nation in the middle of the North Atlantic was not an ethnically diverse country at all. This meant the array of first and last names to be indexed and approved was not very long and not much space was left in between for new ones.

This wasn’t too bad as a temporary and internal system used for statistical purposes and getting around the technical limitations of the time. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case as the system of name-numbers was expanded to become a widely adapted national system of identification in 1965, with numbers assigned to Icelandic nationals at their 12th birthday if it had not been already.

Unexpected side effects

The name-numbers became essential tools for assigning utility bills and bank accounts to people as well as for tax collection, but several issues started appearing.

First of all — obviously — a number based on a person’s name could not be generated until a child was given a name. This lead the healthcare system to introduce its own separate system of identification, the birth-number, consisting of a person’s birthday and other additional digits.

Furthermore — when a person changed their name, they would be assigned new name-number, so using it as a primary key in the databases that would come to existence in the coming decades ended up being a mistake.

This lead to interesting loopholes in the system. For example, there is the well-known case of a man who suffixed a family name to his full name during his personal bankruptcy proceedings in 1984 — the largest personal bankruptcy in the history of the country at the time.

His former identity became bankrupt on paper, but his new identity escaped any serious consequences and he then moved abroad. (Side story: After the bankruptcy, this man was rumoured to be an international arms dealer, then started a US non-profit, owned a Boeing 747 jumbo jet and later ran for the office of the President of Iceland several times, unsuccessfully. Today, he is a car salesman.)

The third large consequence was its effect on those bearing non-approved names or even parents wanting to use different spellings than those in the Names Register. That wasn’t possible, because literally, the computer said no.

Residents migrating from abroad had a specifically hard time working around this and naturalised citizens were forced to replace their full names with an Icelandic one in order to gain citizenship.

Towards the end of the name-number era, some of the numbers were re-issued to people bearing the same of a person deceased years prior. Imagine a young people intending to open their first bank accounts, only to be told they have already been dead for years.

The post-name-number era

The system of name-numbers was abolished in 1987 and replaced with an identification number based on the birthday-based birth-number — decades after its adoption, but its effects are still lingering on today.

A special government committee still operates to this day to maintain and govern the Icelandic Names Register — something locals in Iceland tend to love to hate. But it persists.

Naturalised citizens still had to adapt Icelandic names until the mid 90’s, even if the technical reason was no longer there.

As is the case with comedian Jón Gnarr, new family names still cannot be introduced in Iceland on a general basis. (With immigration being an exception.)

The systems maintaining the National Registry are still full of legacy issues and regulations don’t always keep up with the times. Even in the new system a new identification number needs to be created for anyone changing their gender marker in Iceland, with a death certificate

Over-reliance on identification numbers

People moving to Iceland still have to deal with the catch-22 issue of not being able to apply for jobs, schools and benefits without an identification number and not being able to have one assigned unless they have a job, attend school or receive benefits.

Bank accounts cannot be opened without an identification number. Jobs cannot be applied for. One can’t sign rent and lease contracts without one.

Living in Iceland without an identification number is a massive limbo.

It still lingers

In essence, you are not a person according to the Icelandic system unless you can be identified by the identification number.

A whole system of failure and discrimination ended up being created because someone wanted to rent a punch card sorting machine from IBM in 1952.

More than half a century later, the effects can still be felt, as administrative traditions formed around rituals related to 60-year old technical limitations are still in place.

A bureaucratic cargo cult.

One thought on “How isolationistic overvalidations lead to systematic exclusion and chaos in Icelandic bureaucracy

  1. Oh wow! Bureaucratic cargo cult indeed! This was an incredible read. It’s amazing how a single technological decision made 60 years ago could have such far reaching and persistent effects. I wonder what the costs have been to Iceland’s economy? It seems like it definitely has a negative effect on immigration.

    > Even in the new system a new identification number needs to be created for anyone changing their gender marker in Iceland, with a death certificate

    You have to obtain a death certificate for gender changes? If everything centers around the reuse of names and numbers, wouldn’t that cause even _more_ confusion?

    Thanks for this post 🙂 I really enjoyed it.


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