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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Borderline insanity

It is not often I find myself agreeing with Conservative MPs, but the senior politician who has described the latest wheeze by HMRC to sell the personal financial data of millions of taxpayers to private firms as "borderline insane" has hit the nail on the head,. even if it is David Davis.

The Guardian says that despite fears that it could jeopardise the principle of taxpayer confidentiality, the proposed legislation would allow HMRC to release anonymised tax data to third parties including companies, researchers and public bodies where there is a public benefit. They add that HMRC documents say that officials are examining "charging options":

The government insists that there will be suitable safeguards on personal data. But the plans, being overseen by the Treasury minister David Gauke, are likely to provoke serious worries among privacy campaigners and MPs in the wake of public concern about the government's Care.data scheme – a plan to share "anonymised" medical records with third parties.

The Care.data initiative has now been suspended for six months over fears that people could be identified from the supposedly anonymous data, which turned out to contain postcodes, dates of birth, NHS numbers, ethnicity and gender.

HMRC's chequered record on data is likely to come under scrutiny given historical scandals involving the loss of personal information about 25 million child benefit claimants and 15,000 bank customers.

Critics fear the data could include details about income, tax arrangements and payment history and would carry a risk that people could be identified. Even the perception that this could happen may lead to a breakdown in trust between HMRC and taxpayers, the Chartered Institute of Taxation warned.

Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, said the information could be highly useful to credit rating agencies, advertisers, and retailers wanting to practise price discrimination.

He also raised concerns about any government claims to have made data fully anonymous.

"This is going to be a big battleground," he said. "If they were to make HMRC information more available, there's an awful lot of people who would like to get their hands on it. Anonymisation is something about which they lied to us over medical data … If the same thing is about to be done by HMRC, there should be a much greater public debate about this.

This is yet another initiative that I would look to the Deputy Prime Minister to veto.
David Davis (not to be confused with our own "Top Cat" Davies) has an honourable record of standing up for civil liberties. (A pity that he is so Thatcherite on other issues.)
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