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Calls to Stop Storing of Personal Communications Data and Voiceprints

Privacy groups have led calls to halt the blanket collection and storing of communications data in the EU area, and the creation and storing of the “audio signatures” of 5.1 million people by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

Collection of Communications Data

The privacy groups Privacy International, Liberty, and Open Rights Group, have filed complaints to the European Commission which call for EU governments to stop making companies collect and store all communications data. Their complaints have also been echoed by dozens of community groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and academics.

What’s The Problem?

The main complaint is that communications companies in EU states indiscriminately collect and retain all of our communications data. This includes the details of all calls, texts and so forth (i.e. who with, dates, times etc).

The privacy groups and their supporters argue that not only does this amount to a form of intrusive surveillance, but that the practice was actually ruled unlawful by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) in two judgments in 2014 and 2016.

Privacy groups have expressed concern that some companies in some EU states have tried to circumvent the CJEU judgements, and the CJEU have clearly stated that general and indiscriminate retention of communications data is disproportionate and can’t be justified.

In the UK, for example, the intelligence agencies collect details of thousands of calls daily, but under the CJEU judgements, this amounts to breaking the law.

HMRC Collecting Recordings of Voices

Perhaps even more shocking is the news this week that, according to privacy group Big Brother Watch, the UK HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has a Voice ID system that has collected 5.1 million audio signatures.

The accusation is that HMRC is creating biometric ID cards or voiceprints by the back door. These voiceprints could conceivably be used by government agencies to identify UK citizens across other areas of their private lives.

Big Brother Watch has also expressed concern that customers are not given the choice to opt out of the use of this system.

Helpful and Secure

HMRC, which launched the Voice ID scheme last year, asks callers to repeat the phrase “my voice is my password” to register and access their tax details, and says that the system has been very popular with customers. HMRC has also said that the 5 million+ voice recordings that it already has are stored securely.

Privacy campaigners are calling for the deletion of the voiceprints that are currently stored, and for a different system to be implemented, or to at least allow customers to opt out of Voice ID and to be able to use an alternative method.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

Businesses may be very aware, after having to adjust their own systems to be compliant to the recently introduced GDPR, that all EU citizens should now have more rights about what happens to their personal data. The term ‘personal data’ in the GDPR sense now covers things like our images on CCTV footage, and should, therefore, cover recordings of our personal conversations and biometric data such as recordings of our voices / voice prints / audio signatures.

While we may accept that there are arguments for monitoring our communications data e.g. fighting terrorism, many people clearly feel that the blanket collection of all communications data, not just that of suspects, is a step too far, is an invasion of privacy, and has echoes of ‘big brother’.

Biometrics e.g. using a fingerprint / face-print to access a phone or as part of security to access a bank account is now becoming more commonplace, and can be a helpful, more secure way of validating / authenticating access. Again, images of our faces, fingerprints, and our audio signatures (in the case of HMRC) are our personal data, and it is right that we would want them to be secure, and as with GDPR, that they are only used for the one purpose that we have given consent for, and not to be passed secretly among states and unknown agencies. Also, the ideas that we can opt in or opt out of systems, and are given a choice of which system we use i.e. not being forced to submit a voice recording, is an important issue, and one that many thought GDPR would address.

As more and more biometric systems come into use in the future, legislation will, no doubt, need to be updated again to take account of the changes.