HMRC To Sell Private Taxpayer Data

The government is pushing ahead with legal changes that would allow HMRC to share anonymised taxpayer data, but only in cases where there is a ‘public benefit’

The government is planning legal changes that would allow HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) to sell the personal financial data of taxpayers to private companies, the Treasury has confirmed.

The changes would permit HMRC to release anonymised tax data to third parties such as private firms, researchers and public bodies, according to HMRC documents seen by The Guardian. HMRC officials are currently looking into “charging options”, according to The Guardian’s report.

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Pilot scheme

These plans, as well as those regarding a pilot scheme giving private firms access to the VAT register, were “buried” in unspecified documents released as part of the autumn statement and the recent budget, the newspaper reported. According to the documents, the release of such data will only be considered in cases where it would result in “public benefits”.

The plans are likely to meet with opposition following the suspension of the government’s scheme, which is intended to allow the NHS to offer medical data to third parties. The plan has been suspended for six months due to fears that the “anonymised” data, which includes postcodes, dates of birth, NHS numbers, and ethnicity and gender specifications, could easily be used to identify individuals.

Similar concerns apply to tax data, according to Tory MP David Davis, who criticised the Treasury for listing “no credible benefits” to sharing tax data.

Davis suggested that the wide use of “big data” analytics techniques makes it difficult to see how such data could be released in a genuinely anonymous fashion. “The officials who drew this up clearly have no idea of the risks to data in an electronic age,” he told The Guardian.

Cambridge University professor of security engineering Ross Anderson told the paper that, while there is no doubt that such data would be of use to a variety of private companies, including credit ratings agencies and advertisers, “there should be a much greater public debate about this”.

HMRC currently has a near-total ban on data sharing, but has reportedly launched a “pilot programme” that allows credit ratings agencies Experian, Equifax and Dun & Bradstreet access to data about VAT registration for research purposes. In order to comply with the law, HMRC has reportedly contracted the firm to act on its behalf, meaning they are treated as “part of the department”.

Privacy concerns

HMRC said it will continue to examine privacy options for its data-sharing scheme.

“HMRC is committed to protecting its customers’ information,” the agency said in documents reproduced in The Guardian’s report. “We shall be consulting further on implementing the proposals for sharing anonymised data, and would only take forward specific measures where there was a clear public benefit and subject to suitable safeguards.”

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