The government is considering how much to charge for the information, and claims that all data accessed by third parties will be “confidential”.
But the public has already been stung once by the Coalition’s incompetent attempts to go commercial. The proposed initiative to share NHS medical records with the private sector had to be suspended after a public outcry over “pseudonymised” data – a process by which medical records were said to be anonymous but it was in fact possible to trace exactly whose they were.
The plans for HM Revenue and Customs to share its data are, apparently, being overseen by Treasury minister David Gauke, whose relaxed attitude towards private firms led him to sign off on the infamous “sweetheart deals” that allowed multinational companies to keep billions of pounds of tax that they owed to the Treasury but didn’t want to pay.
Worse still, it turns out the government has already allowed private firms access to our data.
The government has strict rules about what can be released outside HMRC, with a near total ban on data sharing unless it is beneficial for the organisation’s internal work. But according to The Guardian, despite the restrictions, HMRC has quietly launched a pilot programme that has released data about VAT registration for research purposes to three private credit ratings agencies: Experian, Equifax and Dun & Bradstreet.
To comply with the law, the private ratings agencies, which determine credit scores for millions of people and businesses, have been contracted to act on behalf of HMRC and are “therefore treated as part of the department” – giving them access to tax data about businesses that would otherwise be confidential.
The government’s plans to change the law to allow the sale of anonymised individual tax data and release of the VAT register were buried in documents as part of the autumn statement and recent budget.
An HMRC spokesman told the BBC: “HMRC would only share data where this would generate clear public benefits, and where there are robust safeguards in place.
“Last year’s consultation made it very clear that there would be a rigorous accreditation process for anyone wanting access to the data and that any access would take place in a secure environment.
“Those accessing data would be subject to the same confidentiality provisions as HMRC staff, including a criminal sanction for unlawful disclosure of taxpayer information.”
So there. Do you feel better now?
Emma Carr, deputy director of civil rights campaign group, Big Brother Watch, doesn’t. She said: “The ongoing claims about anonymous data overlook the serious risks to privacy of individual level data being vulnerable to re-identification.
“Given the huge uproar about similar plans for medical records, you would have hoped HMRC would have learned that trying to sneak plans like this under the radar is not the way to build trust or develop good policy.”
Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, told The Guardian the information could be highly useful to credit rating agencies, advertisers, and retailers wanting to practise price discrimination.
“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.”
It seems the Conservatives in the Coalition are determined to sell information that doesn’t belong to them, and intend to grind us down with a relentless bombardment of initiatives and plans until they succeed.
They seem to by relying on the possibility that we will get ‘complaint fatigue’ and give up any protests. This is how they have beaten disabled people into submission to the draconian system for withdrawing state benefits from them; the system for appealing is drawn-out and convoluted, and many people with illnesses are too tired or weak to go through the process.
Also, this is another way of contracting-out government work to private firms, as evidenced by the VAT “research” that has been handed over to credit ratings agencies.
You can be sure of two things: Your data is not safe in their hands, and they won’t stop trying to sell it until they have been pushed out of government.
What are you going to do?
UPDATE: Campaigner Patrick Olszowski has responded to my challenge by launching a petition on the Change.org website. Please visit and sign!
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