BUSINESS VS. PRIVACY

Info brokers have got your number, among other things

by Tomoko Otake

In the spring of 1999, Haruo Tanaka (not his real name) became interested in buying a condominium and visited several showrooms in Tokyo. Each time, he was asked to fill out a questionnaire. He provided his name, age, address and phone number as well as his annual income.

He decided not to buy a property after all, so when condominium builders called him later, he replied that he had lost interest.

Soon after, he started getting phone calls from sales reps at companies he had never heard of. He does not remember what they were peddling, because he hung up before they got to the core of their often aggressive sales pitches. What stuck in his mind, however, was that the callers all knew his name.

“They sometimes pretended to be my friends first so they could get past my wife to talk to me,” Tanaka said. “I wondered how they got my name and number, because I have asked not to be listed in public phone books. Now I’m pretty positive that at least one of the condominium builders disclosed the information about me.”

Tanaka’s story is not uncommon. Many people find themselves subjected to telemarketing, direct mail and e-mail marketing without knowing how companies found them.

Parents often receive unsolicited letters from baby-sitting agencies and preschool education providers only months after their babies have been born. Then mail from traditional doll makers addressed to their offspring arrives as the Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) in March or Children’s Day in May approaches.

Housewives who apply for magazine prizes soon receive a postcard promoting, for example, a new kind of pasta.

Reactions to such marketing practices — for which there are currently no legal restrictions — vary from amazement to outright anger, but they inevitably provoke the question: “How did the companies find out about me?”

Part of the answer can be found at Meibo Toshokan (Personal Data Library), which started a list-brokering business in Tokyo’s Shinbashi district in 1982. The company is stocked with resources for sales people looking for contacts.

The directories cover 150 million people — more than Japan’s population, but including redundancies — according to officials of the firm.

Lining the shelves are Dosokai Meibo, or alumni directories, published by various high schools and universities, and employee directories, published by companies for internal use.

Other files bear titles such as “participants of matchmaking parties,” and “clients of aesthetic salons.” They typically include names, ages, addresses and phone numbers. The sources for these lists are not provided.

On its Web site, Meibo Toshokan openly advocates “clients’ list swapping” between different trades, such as hardware stores and kimono makers.

While there are no official statistics of how many list traders exist in Japan, industry officials say there must be hundreds, including mom-and-pop brokers who collect data by calling up students and borrowing their school directories, then make photocopies and sell them to bigger brokers.

Personal data comes from various sources. The most traditional source is municipal offices, which disclose the names, addresses and birthdays of residents upon request.

List Library, based in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, said it buys lists from independent brokers in addition to secondhand bookstores and individuals. The company now has 10,000 lists, mostly alumni directories, which come in handy for telemarketers, said Toshiaki Takanashi, the company’s office manager.

Takanashi said he understands the criticism of trading personal data, citing occasional callers who complain of unsolicited telemarketing. “True, we are cashing in on personal data,” he said. “But we abide by our internal rules to make considerations for privacy.”

For example, the company does not deal with information that would help identify people of “buraku” origin — descendants of a former caste of social outcasts. Japanese businesses have reportedly used lists of such people, detectable by tracing their places of origin, to blacklist them as job applicants.

The company also refuses to buy stolen data and information related to medical history, Takanashi said.

As the recession lingers, however, the number of cash-strapped employees who approach the company with stolen lists is on the rise, he said.

Some of the bigger list traders are competing to computerize their data, industry sources say.

Pan World Co., a Shinjuku Ward-based database provider, boasts a database of 80 million people. The company uses several servers to update the database around the clock, said Seishiro Shimoyama, the company’s president.

So what can you do if you don’t want your personal information used by marketers?

Individuals can keep a portion of direct mail away by sending a postcard to Japan Direct Mail Association, an association of 260 direct mail-related businesses.

Under the mail preference service, the association would then send their names to 43 companies — ranging from database providers and mail-order companies to advertising agencies and printing companies — that have agreed to comply with MPS and have registered to delete their names from mailing lists.

But the service works only for volunteering firms, meaning that individuals cannot completely shut out direct mail.

A privacy protection bill currently under debate in the Diet is designed to set a legal framework for the commercial use of personal information. It would require businesses to gather information fairly and transparently, and not to use personal information obtained for other than specified purposes.

The bill would also ban the transfer of personal data to third parties without consent from the individual involved.

But the proposed legislation is full of loopholes and probably would not significantly affect the operations of list businesses, some companies said.

The government officials also said that companies dealing with personal data would only have to declare on their Web sites or at their offices that personal information owned by them can be disclosed, corrected and erased upon request by the individuals concerned.

“Our intention is to make (the commercial use of personal information) transparent to individuals, not to ban it,” said Akiteru Mikami, deputy director of the personal information protection task force at the Cabinet Secretariat.

The bill, however, has met with fierce opposition from various quarters, most notably media organizations, as a government attempt to limit press reporting activities.

Yu Harukawa, an Osaka-based freelance writer versed in privacy issues, urges people to think twice before filling out questionnaires that ask for names and addresses. Harukawa said people should check privacy policy statements on Internet prize sites and other corporate Web sites and check how much of the information they provide might be used for commercial purposes.