Plans to Computerize Personal Data Ignite Firestorm in Japan; Citing Privacy, Municipalities Defy Effort

By Doug Struck, The Washington Post, Friday 23 August 2002; Page A18

TOKYO—The first stop for new residents of a Japanese neighborhood is the local government office, where they dutifully report their presence and give details of their family. Soon after, the police may stop by to politely ask again who is living there.

On moving out, they must again notify local authorities and get a report to take to the ward office of the next place they reside. This official tracking is accepted with equanimity by most Japanese, as is the requirement for an even more detailed family registry that lists everything from divorces to births, deaths and domicile.

So the government was surprised when a move to put some of this information on a computer network to streamline the process—and to assign an 11-digit identification number to everyone—erupted into a grass-roots revolt.

At least four local municipalities have defied the government and refused to be a part of the computer network that started earlier this month. Others have waffled, saying their residents' participation was voluntary.

Protesters, wonderfully decorated as bar codes, have taken to the streets. Public opinion polls show huge opposition to the system. And a nationally respected journalist has organized a league of influential Japanese to try to get it abolished.

We didn't anticipate this, acknowledged an official of the Ministry of Public Management. We really don't think the criticisms are justified.

The objections to the network and the national identification number would seem a bit quaint in other technologically advanced countries, where people long ago resigned themselves to the pervasiveness of computerized information.

It is even more surprising in Japan, whose residents are the first to admit they readily submit to dictates of authority.

I am afraid the Japanese people will become more docile in the face of government encroachments on their privacy, said Yoshiko Sakurai, the journalist who is leading a national movement against the network. Our people tend to be much more quiet than your people.

Sakurai argues that giving every one of the 126 million Japanese an identification number will shackle the freedom and independence of the spirit, and the energy that is produced by an independent sprit. Numbering people somehow suppresses this.

She also argues that the computerized network, coupled with the extensive personal information the government already collects, will make the nation and its people vulnerable to crime.

Japan has quite a lot of money. It will become a very attractive target for criminal organizations and foreign governments by numbering everyone from politicians to technology experts and medical experts, and collecting the personal data under one number, she said. It is like making all of us naked and putting all of us in a glass container.

Concerns about the safety of personal data is at the root of objections by the municipalities. Leaks could happen at the central government or any of the connected municipalities, they say. They argue that the late prime minister Keizo Obuchi promised in 1999 the network would be accompanied by tough privacy legislation outlawing misuse of the data. The government introduced a bill, but it was shelved this year.

We think it is the central government that is breaking the law, not us, said Nobuo Hoshino, mayor of Kokubunji, a city in Tokyo's western suburbs that held a disconnecting ceremony to defy the law and cut the city's link to the network. The law stipulates there will be legislation to protect personal privacy. When that law is in place, we will participate in the system.

The government's Ministry of Public Management argues it has met the requirements by introducing privacy legislation in parliament, and even if the measure is stalled, the network contains built-in safeguards.

We don't see any privacy problem with this network, contended Tsuyoshi Takahara, head of the ministry's planning office for the network, called Juki Net. He said the opposition is much ado about nothing; the only information that would now be in the network is routine—names, addresses, sex and age, all of which is already available to the public.

The system is intended to streamline the cumbersome paper records kept in 3,300 local offices by computerizing them in a nationwide network. It would eliminate the requirement that people who move visit their ward offices to get a physical exit form to take to their new locality.

Everything is now done by exchanging papers. We are trying to make it more convenient, Takahara said.

But many people are suspicious that the long reach of the Japanese bureaucracy is at work and Juki Net will gradually grow. They fear it could become a giant record-keeping system with the ubiquity of U.S. social security numbers combined with Japan's personal records.

Polls show huge majorities are against the system. And while critics say they fear hackers and other criminals, one of their chief concerns is misuse of the data by their own government.

The problem is, the people don't trust the government, said Hiroshi Yamada, the mayor of Suginami, another ward of Tokyo that has balked at participation in Juki Net.

We've conducted a survey, and only 10 percent of the people want it, he said. We've had several people move into Suginami because of the ward's refusal to join the network.

There is plenty of grist for public suspicion of bureaucrats. In May, the Defense Agency admitted it had drawn up a list with names, backgrounds and political views of citizens who had asked for public information from the agency. Twenty-nine agency officials were punished. Last month, defense contractor Fujitsu said it had gotten a blackmail demand from men who had obtained personal information on military officers leaked from the company's computers.

And just as Juki Net started up, embarrassed officials in the city of Moriguchi in Osaka acknowledged they had sent personal information about 2,584 individuals to the wrong people.

The Ministry of Public Management doesn't answer these concerns, said Mayor Yamada. The minister keeps saying it's safe and they'll go ahead with it. That just fans the anxiety of people even more.