Records of taxpayers’ emails, text messages and phone calls, as well as websites they have visited, are increasingly being examined covertly by HMRC investigators.
Data obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA) shows that HMRC inspectors obtained 14,000 records of taxpayers’ communications data in 2011 ‒ up from 11,500 in 2010. The records concerned show, for example, the date, time, sender and recipient of an email or phone message, or the date, time and address of a website visited.
The information can be obtained under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), which allows HMRC to authorise its own surveillance requests. It does not have to have suspicions of criminal activity and no warrant is needed.
The actual content of emails and phone messages are not available directly through RIPA requests, but can be obtained by a later request if the communications data raises suspicion of wrongdoing. HMRC did not disclose how many full interception warrants it has obtained.
HMRC can also self-authorise directed surveillance operations under which a taxpayer can be followed in public places. Its response to the FOIA request showed that this type of surveillance has declined slightly as electronic interceptions have been favoured instead.
HMRC refused to reveal the number of successful prosecutions for tax evasion resulting from RIPA surveillance. But it says its use of the RIPA to obtain communications data is ‘proportionate and lawful’ and in 2011 enabled the agency to protect GBP850 million of tax revenue.