HMRC is under investigation by the Information Commissioner following a complaint that the tax authority has breached data protection laws by saving taxpayers’ voices without their consent.
The privacy watchdog Big Brother Watch alleges that HMRC has collected 5.1 million taxpayers’ voiceprints in this manner.
Tax expert Owen Kyffin, director of Whitley Simpson, which is one of the largest accountancy practices in the area with offices in Banbury, Bicester, High Wycombe and Witney, explained: “Callers to HMRC are told to repeat the phrase: ‘My voice is my password’ on an automated phone line before being able to access the department’s services. Big Brother Watch claims this amounts to ‘being railroaded into a mass ID scheme’, as callers are not given the choice to opt in or out.”
After members of the public raised concerns, Big Brother Watch tested the system and found there is no option for callers to opt out of the ID scheme, or have their voiceprint securely deleted. They also claim that the HMRC has refused to disclose which other government departments the voice IDs have been shared with, how the IDs are stored and used, whether it is possible to delete a voice ID, which legal territory the data is kept in, how much the scheme has cost taxpayers, or the legally-required “privacy impact assessment”.’ The watchdog submitted Freedom of Information requests that revealed just how much data has been gathered.
Kyffin added: “HMRC insists callers access their information in this way: those that refuse are repeatedly instructed by the automated line, ‘It’s important you repeat exactly the same phrase – please say “My voice is my password’. Big Brother Watch claims the process amounts to collecting biometric data ‘by the back door’.”
These voice IDs could allow ordinary citizens to be identified by government agencies across other areas of their private lives. The watchdog also claims the security of voice ID is dubious, citing a BBC investigation last year where a reporter was able to trick HSBC’s system into allowing access to a bank account. A spokesperson at the Information Commissioner’s Office said: “We have received a complaint about HMRC’s voice ID scheme and will be making enquiries.”