Just weeks after a plan to sell "anonymized" sets of British health-records collapsed in the face of massive public criticism, a new plan has emerged to sell the country's tax records to companies and researchers, prompting an even more critical response. One Tory MP called the plan "borderline insane," and tax professionals are in an uproar. The plan was buried as a brief mention in the autumn budget. HMRC's defense rests on the idea that the information in the datasets will be anonymized, something that computer scientists widely believe is effectively impossible.
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."
"We are concerned that even the strictest safeguards and deterrents may not prevent misuse of the data, or identification of the underlying taxpayer," he said. "There are already examples of aggregate data being provided at such a granular level which would enable identification of the relevant individuals, and we are anxious that any broadening of HMRC's powers of disclosure will inevitably lead to the identification of individuals, and a consequential breakdown in trust between HMRC and taxpayers, not to mention contravention of legislation such as the Human Rights Act."
HMRC to sell taxpayers' financial data [Rowena Mason/The Guardian]