FBR Faces Criticism for Exposing Identity of 0.5 Million Non-Filers

FBR Faces Criticism for Exposing Identity of 0.5 Million Non-Filers

The Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) has stirred controversy by revealing the identity of over half a million citizens who have not filed their income tax returns, according to Income Tax General Order No. 1 issued on April 30, 2024.

This move, meant to incentivize tax compliance, entails the deactivation of mobile phone SIMs for those identified. However, the method of identification – the publication of complete 13-digit Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC) numbers – has raised significant concerns about privacy and potential digital fraud.

The 13-digit CNIC number is a highly sensitive piece of personal information, intricately designed by the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) to encode various personal details. Each CNIC is unique and comprises three distinct parts: the first five digits indicate the individual’s province and administrative division, the subsequent seven digits represent a family code, and the final digit denotes the person’s gender.

Critics argue that the decision to publish full CNIC numbers not only violates individual privacy but also exposes citizens to heightened risks of identity theft and other digital crimes. Questions are being raised about the FBR’s consideration of the consequences of such exposure. “Publishing the entire CNIC number, including the last check digit, is unnecessary and increases the vulnerability of individuals to fraudulent activities,” stated a cybersecurity expert who chose to remain anonymous.

This approach by the FBR also contradicts global best practices in data protection, which advocate for the minimal sharing of personal data. The tax authority’s method of publicly shaming non-filers by exposing their personal details could be seen as an aggressive strategy that may backfire by eroding public trust in government institutions.

On the enforcement side, the FBR’s initiative targets improving tax compliance among Pakistan’s economically active citizens who have yet to file returns. By linking the deactivation of mobile phone SIMs to non-compliance, the FBR aims to prompt immediate action from non-filers. “The goal is to bring more people into the tax net and ensure fair tax collection across the board,” explained an FBR spokesperson. However, the effectiveness of this strategy remains to be seen as it could potentially alienate the public and result in legal challenges regarding privacy breaches.

The backlash has sparked a broader debate about the balance between enforcing tax laws and respecting citizen privacy. Legal experts suggest that while the government has the authority to enforce tax laws, it must also protect individual rights and adhere to the principles of proportionality and necessity in its actions.

As this policy unfolds, the FBR may need to reconsider its strategy and possibly revise the manner in which personal data is handled and disclosed. Advocates for privacy rights and several tax professionals are calling for a more nuanced approach that ensures compliance while safeguarding personal information.

The controversy highlights the ongoing tension between government efforts to increase tax compliance and the imperative to protect individual privacy rights in the digital age. How the FBR navigates this issue could set important precedents for data protection and privacy in Pakistan’s administrative practices.