Tax snooping fears could hit coronavirus app downloads

Tim Wallace
Track and trace app - Isla Binnie /Reuters

Efforts to roll out a coronavirus-busting tracking app could be hindered by fears that data it gathers will be used by the taxman, experts have warned.

The app will track millions of Britons' daily movements to prevent infection - and although the Department of Health has promised this information will be used purely to fight the pandemic, there are concerns it could one day have other uses.

HMRC will not have access to the data. But George Bull, of accountant RSM UK, warned that fears over a future power grab will put off potential users who do not want their movements to be tacked by the authorities.

He said: “HMRC has proved that it is particularly adept at processing large volumes of data to open tax enquiries. Hence, some individuals will be reticent to hand over more significant personal data, as currently planned with the centralised contact tracing app."

Taxpayers who operate internationally can be liable for more UK tax depending on the number of days they spend in the country - details which could be disclosed through the app.

Mr Bull said: “There can be requests to see mobile phone records, credit card bills and flight logs.

“The case could be made that it is right that HMRC has access to this data if it helps to close the net on tax avoidance and evasion.”

It came amid criticism that the NHS will keep the data for up to 20 years.

Victoria Hewson at the Institute of Economic Affairs said that the terms of the app state that data will only be used to fight Covid-19, and only shared with doctors and nurses.

But she added: “The problem is with how much trust people will have in this.

"We know for example security services will sometimes claim overriding powers to access data, or that government systems sometimes have technical and security problems.

“Tax data is shared with the Home Office for processing immigration applications, so we know a lot of data sharing within Government goes on.”

The track and trace app is being trialled on the Isle of Wight this month and is expected to be rolled out across the rest of the nation soon afterwards.

Users can report that they are suffering symptoms and receive a coronavirus test. If this comes back positive, the app will send an alert to other users who have been near to the infected person. They will be identified using of anonymous bluetooth signals sent by phones and monitored through the app.

Anyone who may have been exposed will be asked to self-isolate for two weeks, and will not be told the identity of the infected person.

It is hoped this will help control the pandemic while allowing lockdown rules to be relaxed.