GDPR Says HMRC Must Delete Five Million Voice Records

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has concluded that HMRC has breached GDPR in the way that it collected the biometric voice records of users and now must delete five million biometric voice files.

What Voice Files?

Back in January 2017, HMRC introduced a system whereby customers calling the tax credits and Self-Assessment helpline could enrol for voice identification (Voice ID) as a means of speeding up the security steps. The system uses 100 different characteristics to recognise the voice of an individual and can create a voiceprint that is unique to that individual.

When customers call HMRC for the first time, they are asked to repeat the vocal passphrase “my voice is my password" to up to five times to register before speaking to a human adviser.  The recorded passphrase is stored in an HMRC database and can be used as a means of verification/authentication in future calls.

It was reported that in the 18 months following the introduction of the system, HMRC acquired 5 million peoples' voiceprints this way.

What’s The Problem?

Privacy campaigners questioned the lawfulness of the system and in June 2018, privacy campaigning group ‘Big Brother Watch’ reported that its own investigation had revealed that HMRC had (allegedly) taken the five million taxpayers’ biometric voiceprints without their consent.

Big Brother Watch alleged that the automated system offered callers no choice but to do as instructed and create a biometric voice ID for a Government database.  The only way to avoid creating the voice ID on calling, as identified by Big Brother Watch, was to say “no” three times to the automated questions, whereupon the system still resolved to offer a voice ID next time.

Big Brother Watch highlighted the fact that GDPR prohibits the processing of biometric data for the purpose of uniquely identifying a person, unless there is a lawful basis under Article 6, and that because voiceprints are sensitive data but are not strictly necessary for dealing with tax issues, HMRC should request the explicit consent of each taxpayer to enrol them in the scheme (Article 9 of GDPR).

This led to Big Brother Watch registering a formal complaint with the ICO.

Decision

The ICO has now concluded that HMRC’s voice system was not adhering to the data protection rules and effectively pushed people into the system without explicit consent.

The decision from the ICO is that HMRC now must delete the five million records taken prior to October 2018, the date when the system was changed to make it compliant with GDPR.  HMRC has until 5th June to delete the five million voice records, which the state’s tax authority says it is confident it can do long before that deadline.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Big Brother Watch believes this to be the biggest ever deletion of biometric IDs from a state database, and privacy campaigners have hailed the ICO’s decision as setting an important precedent that restores data rights for millions of ordinary people. 

Many businesses and organisations are now switching/planning to switch to using biometric identification/verification systems instead of password-based systems, and this story is an important reminder that these are subject to GDPR. For example, images and unique Voiceprint IDs are personal data that require explicit consent to be given, and that people should have the right to opt out as well as to opt-in.