Fears over personal data security

Public concern remains deep-seated over the possibility that personal information will be leaked and privacy will be violated as the My Number system, under which the government has assigned a 12-digit identification number to every resident in Japan, went into force at the beginning of this year. Adding fuel to such fears are plans to facilitate commercial use of big data — a vast array of information collected from a variety of sources. The government needs to take convincing steps to eradicate these worries on the part of the citizens.

Even though the My Number system has kicked in, not everyone has received the notification bearing their ID number. The potential difficulties such people could face in various aspects of their lives need to be addressed.

Beginning this month, people are required to produce their ID number for such procedures as applying for livelihood protection benefits or joining the public health insurance program at their local municipal office. Businesses are required to collect the ID numbers of their employees — including part-timers — and in most cases, their dependents.

Under the My Number law, the government is to use the ID system to achieve more administrative efficiency in taxation, social welfare and disaster relief. It is calling on people to apply for a My Number card, which is equipped with an IC chip and an ID photo, saying that its use will enhance convenience in administrative matters. Delivery of the cards is expected to begin shortly for those who have already applied.

The government is also thinking of making it mandatory in the future to link people’s ID numbers to their bank accounts as a measure to crack down on tax evasion by having a more accurate grasp of their assets.

This project has an inherent problem. Since the ID numbers are assigned to people who have registered their residency with the municipality where they live, people without fixed addresses and those who deliberately avoid resident registration to escape violent spouses — cannot get an ID number, and could face problems when they try to find a job or apply for social welfare benefits.

Both the national government and local authorities across the nation should promptly announce measures to address this problem.

Japan Post Co. has also said that as of late December, 5.58 million notifications carrying people’s ID numbers had been sent back to municipalities undelivered because the intended recipients had moved away or were not around to receive the registered delivery, which requires the recipient’s signature.

While the government is eager to promote the My Number program, public concern about the system persists for a number of reasons. Many people do not fully grasp how the system works. According a December survey by Kyodo News, only 13 percent of respondents said they had a good grasp of the system. Some 78 percent expressed uneasiness about My Number, and of these people, about 60 percent cited the risk of personal information leaks and 19 percent pointed to the danger of the government stepping up its watch over people’s lives.

Municipalities are in the process of becoming electronically connected with each other, and the increased transmission of people’s ID numbers through the network will raise the risk of leaks. The burden of ensuring the safe storage of employees’ ID numbers may prove particularly heavy on small business operators.

A recent revision of the My Number law allows use of the ID numbers in municipalities’ management of residents’ vaccination records and in health insurance associations’ data related to medical checks for metabolic syndrome. An amendment to the Personal Information Protection Law clarified rules for commercial use of big data, thus paving the way for authorities to offer under certain conditions large amounts of personal data accumulated by government organizations and independent administrative agencies, including medical data, to businesses for commercial use.

But recent incidents of personal information leaks have served to reinforce people’s concern over the My Number system and the expanded use of big data. In July 2014, some 28.95 million pieces of personal data related to Benesse Corp.’s customers were leaked. In May last year, a cyberattack on the Japan Pension Service resulted in the leakage of some 1.25 million pieces of personal information. In December, the municipal government of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, said information on the city’s 680,000 voters had been leaked. It also surfaced that data on some 103,000 people nationwide, including their names, phone numbers and health insurance numbers, had been leaked — possibly from medical institutions. Earlier this month, Hokkaido University acknowledged that computer systems containing information on its 113,000 students and graduates may have been hacked.

According to a Kyodo News report,140 organizations, including businesses, government bodies and universities, became the target of cyberattacks last year alone, from which at least 2.07 million pieces of personal information were stolen.

One serious problem is that the government has not offered convincing explanations of how the My Number system can be protected from cyberattacks and how the consequences of such attacks can be dealt with if they occur. The fact that as many as 84 percent of the people responding to the Kyodo survey opposed the government’s idea of adding the functions of ATM and credit cards to the My Number cards shows the extent of people’s concern over the system’s security.

The more personal information that is handled, the greater the chance that it will fall into malevolent hands. If the government expands the usage of the My Number system and pushes the use of big data without gaining the public’s understanding and boosting security measures, people may believe that such policies are aimed at increased government control over people’s lives and promotion of business interests. It is significant the Kyodo poll found that 74 percent of the respondents do not look forward to the implementation of the My Number identification system.