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French watchdog warns about govt plan to monitor social media for tax fraud

Denis Charlet, AFP | A picture taken on October 1, 2019 in Lille shows the logo of mobile app Instagram displayed on a tablet.

Thinking of flashing your new Rolex on Instagram? Better make sure you’ve paid your taxes.

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The French government is considering allowing authorities to monitor the social media accounts of French taxpayers to root out possible fraud. In addition to watching what people flaunt on sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, authorities will keep an eye on purchases on sites such as eBay and the French equivalent, Le Bon Coin.

The French parliament is set to debate a proposal to allow the tax office’s computer system to collect information from social media networks for a trial period of three years. The aim is to identify people whose lifestyles, as evidenced by their postings on social media, are incongruous with their declared incomes.

“(The fiscal administration) will be able to see that if you have numerous pictures of yourself with a luxury car while you don’t have the means to own one, then maybe your cousin or your girlfriend has lent it to you, or maybe not,” Darmanin told French business TV show Capital last year.

The system would be able to determine a person’s primary residence and potentially detect customs fraud on online sales sites, the Guardian reported. It would rely on information that is freely accessible.

The proposal, Darmanin’s brainchild, has caused concern for the country’s data protection watchdog group, the National Commission for Data Protection and Liberties (CNIL). If enacted, it could infringe on freedom of thought and expression, according to a warning the CNIL issued on September 12 that was made public on September 30.

The government must provide “strong guarantees” and “rigorous evaluation,” the CNIL cautioned, adding that the massive collection of data could have a significant impact on people’s personal lives. The worry is that data could be mined automatically rather than gathered in a targeted manner.

Tax evasion cost the French government an estimated €80 billion to €100 billion in 2017, up from €60 to 80 billion in 2013, according to Solidaires Finances Publiques, the largest union representing France’s tax authorities.

A similar program is in use in the United Kingdom. Connect, as the program run there by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has generated several billion pounds in additional tax revenue since its inauguration in 2008.

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