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Method in the madness?

Japanese firms stand to gain from tougher border controls in a post-9/11 world

by David Mcneill

In November, Japan became only the second country in the world (after the United States) to introduce mandatory fingerprinting and photo-taking at all international entry points, as part of beefed-up “antiterrorism” measures by the Ministry of Justice.

The move was greeted by howls of protest from human rights groups, lawyers and foreigners, who warned that it would help create the perception that “outsiders” disrupt domestic harmony and fuel crime. Many questioned the need for such elaborate security measures in a country where the chance of being attacked by a terrorist is about on a par with being struck by lightning.

“Why pick on us?” said one angry letter-writer to The Japan Times, calling the initiative “discriminatory” and “stupid.” Another critic was even harsher. “The motive of the new biometrics clearly is not stopping terrorism, but rather a new expression of Japan’s deep-seated racism and xenophobia,” wrote Donald M. Seekins.

Perhaps. As some pointed out, Japan’s minuscule terrorism problem is mostly homegrown. The country’s most lethal terrorist incident — the Aum Shinrikyo gassing of Tokyo’s subway in 1995 — was partly dreamt up by graduates of the country’s top universities. But there could be method in this apparently xenophobic madness, argues lawmaker Nobuto Hosaka of the Social Democratic Party.

“Business is behind this, no question,” he says. “There hasn’t been a terrorist incident in this country since Aum, so how else do we explain it?”

Hosaka has blogged extensively on biometrics — technology that checks and stores information on unique individual characteristics such as irises, veins and voice to verify identity — and is one of the few Diet politicians to publicly state that he finds its proliferation “alarming.”

Corporate Japan has been quick to spot the exponential rise in demand for ID and security devices in the post-9/11 world, a market set to balloon to more than $7 billion by 2012, says the U.S.-based International Biometric Group. Expect such high-tech toys — many bearing Japanese corporate names — to turn up at banks, courtrooms and companies, as well as airports, across the planet in the coming years. Fujitsu, Toshiba and Hitachi have all recently announced plans to hugely expand production of ID devices that read the veins of the palm. Hitachi alone predicts sales of nearly $1 billion over three years, according to the Nikkei daily. Oki Electric is marketing a security system that scans retinas, while Matsushita Electric Industrial has produced a “Walkthrough Iris Identification System” that screens the eyeballs of moving subjects and identifies them in two seconds. Perhaps it was this technology that director Steven Spielberg was thinking of when he had Tom Cruise wander through a mall in “Minority Report” hailed by retina-scanning billboards. The billboards hailed him, of course, as “Mr. Kobayashi.”

NEC is marketing a new facial recognition system that detects the sex and age of subjects by comparing them to photo databases. Aimed at “exposing impersonators,” the system is designed for use with fingerprint-readers and other devices in situations that “demand maximum security.”

“The opportunity in the biometrics market is huge,” says Tony Murphy, founding director of Irish firm Daon, one of the world’s leading suppliers of biometric software, which worked with NEC on the Japanese immigration system. “Since 9/11, over 50 nations have implemented biometric security systems across the world. I think it has reached tipping point and is about to enter the mainstream.” But he disagrees with Hosaka: Security concerns, not profits, drive its growth. “Japan is the second largest economy in the world so there are terrorists in that country, the same as elsewhere. The Ministry of Justice is not focused at all on the commercial aspects of this industry. The bottom line is that these systems are providing convenient and robust identification of people.”

Industry figures are understandably keen to promote the benefits of biometrics. Apart from keeping terrorists out, hand geometry, retinal scanning and voice recognition technology will eventually be used to process social security claims, health benefits and electoral voting, they say. Manufacturers cite more benign uses along with hard-nosed security applications: NEC, for example, says its face-recognition devices could be placed in public spaces to help find missing children or wandering Alzheimer’s patients.

Others, however, question the wisdom of entrusting the management of huge quantities of personal data to governments and large companies. Privacy International, which describes itself as the “oldest privacy advocacy group in the world,” demands that biometric technology be reviewed before it is allowed to spread any further. “The general trend is that privacy is being extinguished in country after country,” warns director Simon Davies.

The group, which campaigned against Japan’s fingerprinting system, recently recommended that travelers take drastic action against a far less elaborate biometric immigration system at London’s Heathrow Airport, including wrapping their fingers in tape to prevent fingerprinting.

Protests are important, Davies believes, because the potential dangers of biometrics outweigh the threats it supposedly targets.

“General-purpose surveillance schemes represent real threats to the fabric of contemporary society.”

Partly as a result of such concerns, Heathrow operator BAA last month withdrew the fingerprint biometrics system from the airport’s new terminal. That hasn’t killed the initiative, but it has provoked the sort of robust debate that has been slow to get off the ground here, says Hosaka.

“I don’t think the bureaucrats here understand this technology themselves,” he says. “They don’t have system engineers in the Justice Ministry. They’re just leaving it in the hands of corporations and it is very powerful technology, which gives a lot of power to people who own and control it.”

He recalls “rubbing his eyes” in disbelief two years ago when he discovered that Accenture, a Bermuda-based consultancy firm, had been awarded a contract for software development and the testing of Japan’s biometric system for just ¥100,000. “I still wonder why this strange decision was not discussed more in the media.” The handful of people who have flagged the Accenture deal, including SDP leader Mizuho Fukushima, say it illustrates how decisions with enormous long-term consequences are being made with minimum public discussion or accountability.

“I am really extremely worried that all this very important, sensitive information of Japanese citizens, by being interchanged, or shared, with foreign countries, might be leaked,” said Fukushima in a 2006 question to the Diet.

With one of the world’s most elaborate biometric systems already in place and a growing corporate share in the new industry, Japan has a higher stake than most nations in asking searching questions about this new technology, say its critics.

Who will develop all the software, databank managers and accessories demanded by the global biometrics industry in the coming years? How will the private sector coordinate with government agencies such as Immigration, the police or U.S. Homeland Security? Japan may have been here first: NEC cooperated with the Japanese police to develop the world’s first automated fingerprint system in 1983. That system — again controversially aimed at foreigners — was abandoned, but the technology stayed. NEC currently supplies China with the immigration technology used at border checkpoints in Shenzhen, and a spokesman says foreign business is expanding.

For better or worse, however, this is a system here to stay, say observers.

“Aliens are merely the guinea pigs in a massive image discrimination and data processing study that will someday benefit everyone, including those now spared the honor,” wrote veteran Japan commentator William Wetherall after the biometric system was introduced. “The Japanese government is definitely not stupid.”

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