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Tuesday, July 9, 2002

Localities denounce 'big brother' ID plan

Resolutions show public wary of putting personal data in state network


Staff writer

Nestled midway along the Shimanto River, the village of Towa in Kochi Prefecture had been just one of hundreds of scenic but obscure locales across Japan.

But the tiny village with some 3,500 residents made headlines nationwide last month when its assembly became the first to urge the central government to suspend plans to connect municipally held resident registers to a nationwide computer network in August.

"We are worried that personal data might leak out of our system once it goes online (nationally)," Towa Assemblyman Tamotsu Hashimoto said. "We thought that it's important to state our opinion freely."

The specter of a village assembly criticizing central government policy was previously unheard of. But the move has sparked similar resolutions in some 50 other municipalities that, like Towa, fear the networking scheme could undermine residents' privacy.

Under the plan, which is based on a law enacted three years ago, the government on Aug. 5 will start managing the personal data of some 127 million Japanese -- including newborn babies -- who will each be assigned an 11-digit ID number.

The online resident registration system forms part of the central government's e-Japan strategy of utilizing information technology in government work and public services.

The scheme will spare individuals from the duty of visiting municipal offices to obtain copies of their resident registration data each time they want to file something with the government, such as claiming pension payouts, unemployment benefits and child-rearing subsidies.

Personal data on resident registers -- names, addresses, gender and birth dates -- have been used by the government to establish identities.

Furthermore, when individuals move from one municipality to another, they will only have to register at the new municipality of residence, freed from the trouble of having to report to the municipality they move out of.

Instead, personal data will be sent from municipal offices to government agencies via a special computer network.

The agencies plan to share data on individuals in 93 kinds of administrative matters, including the registration of various official licenses, such as those of architects, real estate agents and travel business operators.

A bill currently before the Diet would further expand the number of administrative matters to be handled under the network system to 264, including the issuance of passports and car registration.

In the second phase, scheduled to begin in August 2003, an integrated circuit-equipped card will be distributed to all Japanese citizens who ask for it.

With the card, residents will be able to retrieve residency logs from any municipal office in Japan. Currently, a copy of the register can only be obtained at the municipal office of the place of residence.

Each municipality can also add its own features to the IC card. For example, the card can be used as a library card or a welfare services card.

Purpose said unclear

But sharing personal data via a computer network worries skeptics.

They say the purpose of introducing the expensive project remains unclear and makes little sense financially, given the huge debts the central and municipal governments are saddled with. The cost of setting up the system is estimated at 36.5 billion yen, while the annual cost of operating it is put at 19 billion yen.

"The government says that people will be able to retrieve a copy of their resident registers from anywhere in Japan," said Hiroshi Yamada, mayor of Tokyo's Suginami Ward and a staunch opponent of the computer networking of resident registers. "But it is not a service citizens have asked for."

Yamada argues that behind the move lurks a government plan to expand its control over citizens.

"Government agencies have an inherent desire to check up on individuals who resist government policies or who have unique opinions," Yamada said. "With a unified code, it would be so easy for the government to collect a vast amount of data on citizens, which could be used against their interest."

Yamada said the coding system could eventually give various government agencies access to touchy data such as a person's DNA or whether a woman has had an abortion.

Critics of the numbering system argue the Aug. 5 launch of the system is illegal, citing a 1999 comment by the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi that "an appropriate legal measure to protect citizens' privacy should precede the implementation of the system."

The comment led to the government drafting and introducing a privacy protection bill, which is under Diet deliberation. But the bill's passage during the current Diet session, which ends July 31, is considered unlikely because the legislation has met fierce public opposition over its perceived threat to the freedom of the press.

Opponents also cite what they term "bad precedents" in other countries.

In the United States, the use of a social security number, originally introduced in 1936 for the social security program, was expanded to cover taxpayer ID numbers in 1962.

The number is now instrumental in every aspect of life in America, with authorities in charge of welfare, drivers' licenses and motor vehicle registration using it to establish identifies. Private firms also use the number in utility and credit card billings.

In 1982, during the Ronald Reagan administration, the SSN database came in handy for authorities tracing people who had not signed up for the Selective Service System.

Experts said the authorities matched the list of those who had registered with the SSS with the SSN list to identify those not listed. Then they retrieved their addresses from the Internal Revenue Service database and sent them a letter of warning.

According to Koji Ishimura, professor of law at Hakuo University in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture, and head of citizens' group Privacy International Japan, identity theft has become a social problem in the U.S., prompting a House of Representatives committee to launch a series of public hearings on the issue in recent years.

Countries in Northern Europe have taken the ID system a step further. Everyone in Denmark, Sweden and Norway is given a personal identification number.

According to Ishimura, Sweden has a centralized database on every citizen, which covers not only the PIN, name and address but also marital status as well as the amount of income taxes paid and the value of real estate owned.

The database, which is public and can be viewed by anyone, even lists whether the person allows the data to be used commercially. Ishimura warns that, once a numbering system kicks in, the amount of personal data collected by the government and therefore exposed to the risk of leaks, misuse and abuse could only go up.

High security claimed

Government officials meanwhile claim they are taking the maximum level of security and privacy precautions. The data shared by central government agencies will be limited to name, address, sex, birth date, an 11-digit code and the last time an entry was made on the database, they claimed.

Government agencies are categorically banned from using the database for purposes other than originally stated, claimed Tsuyoshi Takahara, planning director for the resident register at the Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry. The private sector will have no access to the database, either, he added.

Takahara went on to say that municipal computers will be equipped with fire-wall software to protect them from hackers. Municipal officials and private-sector engineers who operate the computers must observe confidentiality or face criminal punishment of up to two years in prison.

He said the government "will never, ever," expand the use of the ID numbers to taxation. Opponents have warned that such a move could lead to constant surveillance of citizens, as depicted in George Orwell's novel "1984," by allowing the state to track every activity that involves monetary transactions.

But the government assurance on the scheme's safety is losing appeal amid recent revelations that some government agencies were engaged in background checks on citizens.

In June, the Defense Agency admitted it surreptitiously compiled a list of people who sought agency information under the information disclosure law, with such notes as "an antiwar former Self-Defense Forces official" and "the mother of an unsuccessful SDF applicant."

Later in the month, it was learned that an affiliate of the Natural Resources and Energy Agency provided local governments in 15 prefectures with nuclear plants with lists of individuals who refused to accept government benefits linked to the plants, with information on why they might have refused.

Public caught unaware

Further fueling public distrust in the authorities is the fact that few people actually are aware of the network system, even though its launch is less than a month away.

According to a Kyodo News poll taken on June 30 and July 1, 83.2 percent of those polled replied that they did not know the starting date of the system. Half of those polled also said they have little or no knowledge of the system itself.

At the same time, 51.1 percent said the system's launch should be postponed and the plan should be reviewed.

Against this backdrop, municipal assemblies on various levels, ranging from ones in Mie, Tottori and Nara prefectures to ones in villages such as Towa, have rushed to adopt resolutions over the last few weeks, asking for a review of the plan.

A citizens' group comprised of journalists, lawyers, computer professionals and others, including Suginami Ward Mayor Yamada, is also proposing a bill that would freeze the network's start for three years.

The bill has won the endorsement of a nonpartisan group of Diet members, including Shizuka Kamei, former policy chief of the Liberal Democratic Party. The 69 lawmakers are calling on other colleagues to join their group, hoping to encompass a majority in the legislature within the month.

Tsutomu Shimizu, a lawyer who is coordinating the citizens' effort, voiced hope that an ongoing wave of local resolutions will eventually topple a decision made at the highest level of the bureaucracy.

"Wouldn't it be exciting if it turns out that a resolution by a tiny village in Kochi Prefecture triggered a reversal of the plan?" Shimizu asked.

"This could be a chance for local assemblies, which have been effectively stripped of power, to exert clout in national politics."



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