Privacy group hits out at HMRC spying robots

The modern day sheriff of Nottingham – otherwise known as  HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), has decided to employ “web robot'”software to help it spy on people it believes are guilty of dodging their tax duty.

The government department hopes that by putting this in place it will be able to find out information about certain people and companies silently trading and evading their taxes.

The moves have however been described by privacy groups as “outrageous” while security experts have said there could be a possibility of “false alarms.”

The HMRC’s spies are basically pieces of code, which can be unleashed to run searches over the internet. Through this they then analyse and file information from web servers.

This information is then crossed referenced with the department’s Connect computer system to find people who are trading without telling it by looking at previous tax dodgers and looking to see if there were any missing links between interest, property income and lifestyle.

And no stone will be left unturned with the HMRC claiming the bots will worm their way into sites such as Google and eBay to find traders, which it will then cross reference with its files.

However the move has been criticised by Big Brother Watch. Director of the organisation Daniel Hamilton told TechEye: “There’s an old adage which says the only thing in life you can be sure of is death and taxes – but this development is truly astonishing.

“For HM Revenue & Customs to be deploying web bots in order to snoop on business owners is outrageous.

“The HMRC should focus on tried and tested methods to target criminals rather than conducting covert surveillance on UK businesses”.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant  at Sophos had other worries. He told TechEye: “There will be undoubtedly be some who will feel concerned about how the HMRC’s data-trawling could open up issues of privacy – and it would be good to hear more information about what they will do with the data that they don’t feel is relevant to any cases they are pursuing.

There will also be concerns about the possibility of false alarms, with innocent users being suspected of “trading” when in fact they’re simply disposing of their life-long collection of Max Bygraves records or Dr Who paperbacks.

“The HMRC will probably receive more goodwill from the British public regarding this initiative if they clarify that they are focusing on those who run real money-earning businesses online, rather than clearing out the contents of their attic,” said Cluley.