Why do government authorities want to monitor Internet users’ online activity? In the United Kingdom, one big reason is to find tax evaders by tracking social media accounts.
The Belfast Telegraph reports that HM Revenue & Customs — the agency that collects taxes in the U.K. — has deployed a tool called Connect to monitor citizens’ social media activity. It mines data related to purchases and expenses in an ostensible effort to identify people who are paying fewer taxes than they should.
“If your Facebook page is an endless parade of expensive-looking holidays, dinners and shopping trips, but you’re paying very little tax, the bods at HMRC are going to want to know why,” the paper writes.
The program was launched in 2008. Since that time, it has helped the British government collect three billion pounds in tax money that otherwise would have gone unpaid, according to the report.
In many cases, finding tax evaders through online tracking is a legitimate enough activity on the part of the government. After all, tax agencies in democratic countries for decades have monitored individuals’ spending habits in other ways to try to identify tax evaders.
But as the newspaper noted, in some cases it may be unfair to make assumptions about people’s tax status based on social media. “What if you are taken out for dinner at a new restaurant, but you don’t foot the bill? Or if you snag a designer coat at a cut-price sample sale – could you be penalised for your thriftiness?”
Even for those of us who do pay taxes, this news is another reminder of why protecting your privacy online is becoming more and more important.
By the way, Internet-based tracking by tax agencies is not unique to the U.K. In the United States, the IRS has also been mining data from social media for several years.