The click on the line...

...may well be HM Revenue and Customs, now that the Serious Crime Act has come into power, giving HMRC "across the board" powers to listen in on phone calls, intercept emails and letters and bug homes and cars. Powers that were previously only granted for investigating drug and firearms offences are going to be used against people suspected of not calculating their tax return properly. 

Livesofothers_2There are a multitude of problems with this, so many that it's difficult to know where to start, in fact.


Let's begin with the question of privacy and data security. HMRC, and indeed the public sector in general, hardly has a glowing record of protecting the information that it already has. If this organisation cannot be trusted with the names, addresses and bank account details of people in receipt of benefits, should we really trust them to record private conversations and open personal correspondence?


Furthermore, will they be any good at using the new powers? As I mentioned earlier, they've previously been able to listen in on people involved in firearms and drug crimes. Judging from the boom in both types of offence, HMRC perhaps need more time to focus on these issues rather than having a long list of other crimes to use bugging on as well.


There is very little evidence that bugging powers will actually be of any use even if HMRC suddenly became good at their job, either. How many of these small fry that the Revenue will be able to use the powers on do actually email their friends or phone their accountant to brag about their wicked ways?


The timing of the new powers is not just unfortunate given the recent collapse of confidence in HMRC, it is remarkably clumsy given recent news about the horrendous scale of bugging in Britain. Apparently more than 600 public bodies including many local councils have got intercept powers, and over 1,000 requests for intercepts and bugging are made every day. The Interception of Communciations Commissioner has already expressed concerns that over 1,000 people a year are wrongly bugged due to admin errors or monitored without proper permission.


The simple fact is that not only are these new powers intrusive, they are over-complicating HMRC's job - a job that they have more than shown they are struggling to do properly already, and which hardly needs yet more complexity. When will they realise that simpler structures are easier to run?

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