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HMRC deletes 160,000 voice IDs

28/01/19

Parliamentary Correspondent

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has deleted the voice data of more than 160,000 people it collected during phone calls, after they protested.

Woman speaking on phone

However, the tax authority is facing criticism because it continues to gather ‘voiceprints’ from callers to its helpline, amassing a biometric database that holds 7 million records.

The privacy group Big Brother Watch is now urging the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to step in, to prevent people being “railroaded into a mass ID scheme by the back door”.

HMRC now lets people decline to use its Voice ID system, or opt out to have their data deleted later, having originally failed to offer an easy way to do so.

A freedom of information request by Big Brother Watch revealed that 162,185 people had opted out and had their voice data deleted by December 2018.

Shady scheme

Silkie Carlo, the group’s director, said: “HMRC’s shady Voice ID scheme forced biometric IDs on the UK by the back door and created one of the largest known state held voice databases in the world.

“It is a great success for us that HMRC has finally allowed taxpayers to delete their voiceprints and that so many thousands of people are reclaiming their rights by getting their voice IDs deleted.

“Now it is down to the ICO to take robust action. HMRC took millions of voice IDs without taxpayers’ legal consent – the only satisfactory outcome is for those millions of voice IDs to be deleted.”

The Voice ID scheme, which was launched in 2017, asks callers to HMRC’s helpline to repeat the phrase “my voice is my password” in order to register. Once this has been done, they can use the phrase to confirm their identity when managing their taxes.

When Big Brother Watch first protested last summer, HMRC had collected 5.1 million audio signatures – a database that grew by a further 2 million by the end of last year.

Popularity claim

HMRC says the process is “very popular” with its customers, because it helps speed up security procedures and improves access to its digital services.

A spokesperson said: “Our Voice ID system is very popular with millions of customers as it gives a quick route to access accounts by phone. All our data is stored securely and customers can opt out of Voice ID or delete their records any time they want.”

The organisation is cooperating with the ICO, which is investigating to see whether the system breached data protection law.

Until last summer, people had to get in touch with HMRC separately and ask to be removed from the Voice ID system. Only about 80 people did so.

Image by Dun.can, CC BY 2.0 through flickr

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