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Tinker, tailor, soldier, taxman

A decentralised virtual currency contained in an algorithm, robots fetching sticks for Google and drones delivering packages for Amazon… Is this a scene from Blade Runner or is it finally starting to feel like we’re living in the future we’ve so often been promised?

This brave new world isn’t without it’s drawbacks though. Over the last few years Snowden, Manning and other whistleblowers have revealed that we’ve unwittingly entered an Orwellian era – except current surveillance technology is far more intrusive than anything George himself dreamed of.

When the world’s intelligence agencies are sending spies into World of Warcraft to track down terrorists, it really should come as little surprise that HMRC has turned to Google Earth and social media to tackle tax evasion and benefit fraud.

According to Ernst & Young, tax inspectors are increasingly turning to Google Street View in an attempt to discover undeclared income and assets like expensive cars or property extensions that may delegitimise benefit claims.

HMRC spying

A specific example is of HMRC using Street View to determine if a company pooled van, which is required to be parked at an office residence, is being parked at an employee’s home address.

One particularly keen-eyed tax inspector even inferred payments of private school tuition fees from the fête advertisement displayed outside a resident’s home (which, embarrassingly for HMRC, turned out to be their neighbours’).

Almost everything posted via Facebook (even privately), Twitter, Linkedin and other various social channels is left out in the public domain, like little breadcrumbs for HMRC to follow.

HMRC has increased its focus on tackling tax avoidance hugely in recent years, and George Osborne recently announced the largest-ever package of measures to close the tax gap. A recent survey of HMRC’s employees showed that the majority don’t believe the taxman is handling their shifting priorities well, and the same report admitted that teams were having to be frequently re-tasked to meet their compliance targets.

Having recently been granted the right to break the speed limit in pursuit of evaders, HMRC is becoming an increasingly militant outfit. The purchase of a £50 million supercomputer from BAE systems, which HMRC will be using to collate and analyse information about taxpayers it suspects of malfeasance, only serves to underscore their Bond villain credentials.

In a Big Data world, where dragnet surveillance has resulted in the targeting of millions of perfectly innocent individuals, is it right that a tax-collecting body, whose own employees believe is incapable of dealing with change and new technology, employ the same techniques?

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