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Jun 30th, 2014

HMRC: finally, a response!

By India Thorogood

HMRC have – finally – got back to us about our 250,000 strong petition asking them not to share our tax data with private companies. Their response is below.

It’s great that the HMRC spokesperson agrees about the dangers of sharing data with private companies. But their statement is a little vague, and doesn’t seem to actually rule this out.

For example, they mention using our tax details for “research” but they don’t specify say whether it would be academic or research by businesses. This matters – most 38 Degrees members would feel uncomfortable with their details being used for market research, for the benefit of businesses. But they might feel more comfortable about anonymised data being used to inform academic research on taxation.

When the proposals were announced, Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University voiced his concerns. He said the information could be useful to credit rating agencies, advertisers, and retailers wanting to practice price discrimination. HMRC already ran a pilot programme that has released data to private credit ratings agencies like Experian.

HMRC also say “the Government has announced that it will go ahead with the next steps for making aggregated and anonymised tax data available for wider public benefit” But this is a bit unclear too – what counts as being in the public benefit?

They also say “No decision has been made about whether we would seek to recover the costs of processing and providing data.” Could this be a bit of a loophole which would enable them to sell the data? What do you think?

“HMRC would release data only to parties who were capable of meeting stringent data security and privacy requirements” Lots of organisations would qualify as meeting data security requirements – like 38 Degrees. HMRC need to be more specific about the safeguards they’ll put in place, and about who these “parties” receiving data will be.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this is what HMRC say about the decision making process. It shows we have the power to stop changes if we want to.

“None of the changes being considered can be pursued without Parliamentary approval.” This means our MPs have the power to stop these plans in their tracks.

Javier, an expert on privacy from Open Rights Group has taken a look at it and said “HMRC need to explain how exactly they propose that taxpayers’ data will be used by businesses. It is not clear that all data sharing will have a public benefit. Sharing such unique data to credit agencies and other big institutions could entrench the asymmetry of information against citizens.”

What do you think of their response? A month or so ago 38 Degrees members voted to keep the pressure up. Now 38 Degrees members are inviting their MPs to a meeting in Westminster to hear experts talk about the data sell-off, and HMRC have offered us a meeting. Comment below on HMRC’s response, and suggest what else we could do to stop the sell-off.

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