As if to show that this government has no sense at all for the prevailing fears about privacy, it was announced this week that HM Revenue and Customs are to sell data to enable private operators to make a profit from it. Many civil servants find technology bewildering and HMRC perhaps more than most – try using any of their websites, which have apparently been designed by the committee of accountants, civil servants and programmers, with not a human being in sight. Blind alleys, incomprehensible instructions and infuriating illogical circles make the navigation of HMRC websites like climbing one of Escher’s staircases.
It is probable that the civil servants have no idea of the power of data analytics available to the sort of people who want this data. However much it is a anonymised, however much it is pseudonymised, it is certain that the buyers will be able to link this data to other data to supplement their already comprehensive picture of each of us. The civil servants will doubtless say, as the security forces say in analogous circumstances, “it’s only metadata” with all the self-assurance and ignorance of those who use terms they do not understand. The only thing which may save us is that HMRC’s data handling is appallingly incompetent and much of the data will be inaccurate.
I spent much of last year facing a barrage of demands for a tax return, with letters of increasing shrillness threatening ever-increasing penalties – they rose to £1,200 at one stage. In fact, HMRC had invented a new taxpayer, with my name and address but a new tax reference.
The depths of their incompetence becomes clear when you learn that a grovelling apology and offer to pay the costs incurred in dealing with the problem was followed almost immediately by yet further demands. Good luck to anybody who pays hard cash for that.