Big Brother Watch response: HMRC forced to delete 5 million voice IDs

Director of Big Brother Watch Silkie Carlo, said:

“This is a massive success for Big Brother Watch, restoring data rights for millions of ordinary people around the country. To our knowledge, this is the biggest ever deletion of biometric IDs from a state-held database.

This sets a vital precedent for biometrics collection and the database state, showing that campaigners and the ICO have real teeth and no Government department is above the law.”

BACKGROUND:

In June 2018, a Big Brother Watch investigation revealed that HM Revenue and Customs had accumulated a little-known database of 5.1 million taxpayers’ voiceprints from callers to the helplines without their consent. The Government scheme not only broke taxpayers’ trust, it breached their data protection and privacy rights. HMRC was building a biometic ID database by the backdoor – the largest state-held voice database in the world.

Big Brother Watch handed their findings to the Information Commissioner and formally requested that the ICO conduct an investigation. An investigation subsequently began.

In January 2019, Big Brother Watch conducted a six month review using Freedom of Information requests. We found that HMRC had updated their system so that callers who had previously been railroaded into the ID scheme were offered the option to delete their voiceprint. We also found that the shady scheme had suffered a huge backlash and, within months, 160,000 people had utilised the option to delete their voice record from the Government database.

Big Brother Watch cautioned that this change was not enough. Our director, Silkie Carlo, said: “Now it is down to the ICO to take robust action and show that the Government isn’t above the law. 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 announcement today marks one of the most robust enforcement actions the ICO has taken against a Government department. It is also, to our knowledge, the biggest ever deletion of biometric data from a state-held database in the UK.