The Guyana Revenue Authority employs the internet plentiful in its administration, management and enforcement of the revenue activities of the country. Like other parts of the administration, it relies heavily on its web site to speak about its work, to get important tax information to taxpayers or those who otherwise need to use its information and to offer guidance and advice to users of the services that it provides. No one who uses the facility would doubt that the web site of the GRA has moved from being a simple source of information to one that gives access to such varied data as the tax laws of Guyana, the application of key regulations, how to interpret tax data and the types of forms and information needed to conduct business with the revenue authority. It is possible to access updates on what’s happening within the agency, download forms, and check various types of services offered in the side panels of its website.
Businesses, foreign and local, can obtain the exchange rates to be used in transacting international business with the GRA. It would be fair to say that the GRA, indeed, has enhanced its technical capacity over the years since it started using the internet and its web site as a communication device. Yet, one has to wonder if the GRA has committed unwittingly an error in one of its latest services to the Guyanese public by publishing on its web site the names and addresses of some taxpayers who are due a refund.
Enamored with communication devices
While Guyanese are no doubt enamored with communication devices like the Blackberry, the iPhone, iPad and their laptops, it is not clear how many actually use the web site of the GRA to look for information. Guyanese visit Internet Cafés quite often and surf the “Net” for various types of information. How much they rely on the internet services of the GRA is not clear. The GRA most likely has data on the extent to which its web site is accessed by taxpayers and those who use or are seeking information about its services. The GRA must be satisfied that a significant majority of its taxpayers visit its web site regularly in search of information or online tools to conduct business. From the type and quantity of information that could be found on its web site, the GRA is enthusiastic about the utility and value of this communication device. That enthusiasm must have prompted it to publish the names and addresses and an indication of the amount of refund that taxpayers could be receiving on its web site. Using its web site is an easy and cheap way of reaching large numbers of taxpayers who are scattered around the country, and makes for efficient administration of the tax system.
The concern here has to do with online privacy and the security features of the service as it relates to the refunds of taxpayers. It is not clear what public benefit is obtained by making the names and location of taxpayers due a refund public. Concerns exist about the cost of tax administration and its impact on cost and efficiency. However, concerns also exist about crime in Guyana and how little Guyanese able to protect themselves from being robbed or hurt.
Police protection is not a service that many could depend on in the ordinary course of life, much less at Christmas time when needs for material things increase and many are desperate to have some. While the sums of money reported on the web site are not large, it might still create the incorrect impression about the wealth or the amount of funds a taxpayer might have.
Broadcasting the names and addresses of persons expected to receive refunds on a public site like its web site is not a good thing to do. Moreover, cyber-crime is real and every bit of personal information could be used against unsuspecting victims.
According to the system used by the GRA, every taxpayer is supposed to have a tax identification number or TIN. The TIN serves as a unique identifier of each taxpayer. The online privacy of the taxpayers would have been protected and it would have been better for the GRA to set up access that required use of the taxpayer identification number.
It is true that no one has a right to privacy when operating in the public domain, but given how little control one has over cyberspace and the risks that exist in that vast and seemingly uncontrollable space, the GRA should not make it that easy for all and sundry to gain access to personal information of the taxpayers in its database.
One possible solution would be to make the tax refund information available only upon request by the taxpayer – and make it so that they can access only their own tax information. Alternatively, even if it posts the taxpayer’s name on its web site indicating a refund is due, and even if more than one taxpayer has the same name, by requiring the use of the TIN only the taxpayer would have access to his or her information.
This will allow the GRA to keep the taxpayers informed as well as maintain confidentiality. However, the GRA also must make sure to deliver this information in a secure fashion in order to stave off cybercriminals. An appropriate https protocol would be especially helpful in this regard, as would password protection.
I wish to take this opportunity to wish all Guyanese, especially the readers of Stabroek News, a healthy, safe, joyous and prosperous New Year.
LUCAS STOCK INDEX
There were no trades in the fourth week of the month of December 2012. As a result, the Lucas Stock Index (LSI) remains unchanged from the previous week.