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At the IT Strategic Headquarters

August 6, 2009

Yesterday we visited the Prime Minister’s IT Senryaku Honbu (IT Strategic Headquarters). (This has actually been the only national-level government agency that has agreed to speak to us, and some of the reasons for refusal have been rather telling, not least that of Houmusho (the Ministry of Justice), which claimed that they had nothing to do with privacy and so on, which betrays a level of ignorance about the effects of their own policies that is probably more the result of bureaucratic sectionalism and literalism than anything else but is nevertheless interesting!). The IT Strategic HQ is responsible for developing the ‘i-Japan’ strategy, the latest incarnation of what has at various times been called ‘Information Society Japan’ and ‘e-Japan’ policy. They are also the agency that wrote the most recent Japanese data protection laws, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

We were treated to a prepared presentation on the latest incarnation of the i-Japan strategy, in which the ‘i’ seems to stand for ‘inclusion’ and ‘innovation’ but not apparently for ‘interactive’, which one might expect from its use elsewhere in computing. However it was the brief interview we had afterwards that was more enlightening.

In short, the government has acknowledged that what they originally wanted out of juki-net has failed due to opposition, despite the supreme court victory that ruled that the current cut-down version was constitutional. However, as Kanshi-no! argued, they are not going to back down that easily. The movement towards the creation of centralised government databases will continue, and there most likely will eventually be a fully configured identification system (and card) and rather alarmingly, the new i-Japan strategy makes it quite clear that laws that currently prevent this from happening will simply be changed or removed. They do not want opposition groups, nor indeed the current global recession, to be able to hold up or change these plans.

However the main thrust of development of centralised databases has shifted away from juki-net and the jyuminhyo (residents’ registration) system, towards national insurance, health and pensions. This is, as the agency than runs juki-net, Lasdec, suggested to us – and I am now beginning to think that this suggestion was rather more of a loaded hint than I had first thought – by far the most data-rich area of government records and therefore in many ways more suitable for being the basis of an architecture of central registration and identification. The database that the government intends to create in this area will also have the possibility for citizens to add in (voluntarily, they say), information from private sources, such as bank account and other financial details. Of course this could be more ‘convenient’ in terms of benefits and taxes, but it also puts an enormous amount of previously private data in the government’s hands and presents a huge temptation to identity fraud and theft from both outside and, more importantly inside the state bureaucracy (and let’s not forget, most identity fraud is an inside job).

It gets more worrying still as despite the advanced stage of these plans, the government has apparently still not decided exactly who will have access to this database, and the police in particular, as well as private insurance companies, are still considered as potential users. It seems that although the IT Strategic HQ might have developed data protection in Japan but they do not appear to understand its principles of necessity, proportionality and consent – indeed I asked them about these principles and they really had no serious reply. Instead they claimed that people in Japan wanted to have these central databases because the current fragmented system had led to poor security and data losses, and in any case, ageing society and the pensions crisis meant this had to be done. I have noticed that in Japan, ‘ageing society’ like ‘terrorism’ in the UK, seems to have become the spectre evoked to silence potential criticism.

There are many other issues too: the government is also trying to introduce a voluntary system of Electronic Health Records (EHR), but this is not as developed as the Connecting for Health centralised database that is still experiencing significant problems in its introduction in the UK; and there are some rather less controversial social inclusion measures included the provision of computers for schools and so on. However my overall impression after leaving the IT Strategic HQ was of a government that was determined to press ahead with centralised collection and control of personal information regardless of the views of citizens or of whether it is really necessary even to achieve the policy aims they have. And this won’t change as the result of a change in government either. If, as seems likely, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP or Jyuminshuto) are voted out, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ or Minshuto) which will succeed them, has already said that it will create a central database.

(Thank-you to the officials of the IT Strategic Headquarters for their time).

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