The ICO compels HMRC to delete five million biometric records

HMRC logo appearing on a smartphone which is nestled in the pocket of someone's jeans
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has issued HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) with a notice which says the tax authority must delete five million biometric records taken from its users without consent.

The records refer to the voice recordings taken by HMRC between January 2017 and October 2018 without consent to use for the authority's over-the-phone verification process.

HMRC introduced the option for users to participate in the service in October. However, prior to that opting-in to the verification service and handing over one's biometric data was compulsory - something that's against privacy rules.

The service will continue in its current operational form, despite the deletions, which according to Silkie Carlo, director of privacy campaigning group Big Brother Watch, "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," Carlo added.

Those who have made contact with HMRC over the phone in the past few years may have been confronted with a message prompting them to repeat 'my voice is my password' in order to verify future phone correspondence with the service.

The security measure allowed users to verify their identity over the phone simply by saying the phrase which could be linked to the user's account details, replacing the need to verify one's identity using a bank card number or a passport number, for example.

This is the service in question and it still runs today but with the added bonus of being able to opt-out.

HMRC will have to delete the five million records it obtained prior to October 2018, but the 1.5 million records it has collected lawfully since then will be retained.

The GDPR which came into effect in May last year requires organisations to obtain explicit consent from the user to gather and control their data. HMRC's pre-October practises wouldn't have fulfilled this requirement.

"I am satisfied that HMRC should continue to use voice ID," said Sir Jon Thompson, HMRC chief executive in a letter to HMRC's DPO. "It is popular with our customers, is a more secure way of protecting customer data, and enables us to get callers through to an adviser faster."

The ICO issued HMRC with a preliminary enforcement notice on 4 April 2019 stating its intent to compel the authority to delete the five million records and will issue the final enforcement notice next week, giving HMRC 28 days to complete the deletion. HMRC said that it will fulfil the notice "well before" the deadline set.

"We welcome HMRC's prompt action to begin deleting personal data that it obtained unlawfully," said Steve Wood, deputy commissioner at the ICO. "Innovative digital services help make our lives easier but it must not be at the expense of people's fundamental right to privacy. Organisations must be transparent and fair and, when necessary, obtain consent from people about how their information will be used."

The focus on HMRC began in June last year when the results of a Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by Big Brother Watch revealed the five million records were collected unethically.

Big Brother Watch managed to bypass the voice ID system by saying 'no' three times but this method of getting around the data collection was not made clear on the hotline.

Connor Jones

Connor Jones has been at the forefront of global cyber security news coverage for the past few years, breaking developments on major stories such as LockBit’s ransomware attack on Royal Mail International, and many others. He has also made sporadic appearances on the ITPro Podcast discussing topics from home desk setups all the way to hacking systems using prosthetic limbs. He has a master’s degree in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield, and has previously written for the likes of Red Bull Esports and UNILAD tech during his career that started in 2015.