Omron admits to selling commuter data to government

Kyodo, Staff Report

Precision equipment maker Omron Corp. used images of passengers surreptitiously taken at train stations run by East Japan Railway Co. for a government-linked research project without JR East’s consent, the companies admitted Saturday.

The big data privacy incident is the second involving JR East, which admitted selling data on its Suica card customers to Hitachi Ltd. in July 2013 without notifying cardholders that it was doing so.

Omron’s misuse of the images raises further suspicions about the way high-tech firms are treating people in the age of big data.

Last week, Benesse Holdings Inc. revealed that information on millions of customers was apparently stolen from a unit of the nation’s largest provider of correspondence education courses and sold multiple times to various “name list” vendors, who then used it to send junk mail to them.

The commuter images taken by Kyoto-based Omron were obtained by installing about 10 cameras each at four train stations. The stations were Atami Station in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, Sakuragicho Station in Yokohama, and Itabashi and Kokubunji stations in Tokyo. Omron said it installed the cameras to examine passenger flow at the request of JR East.

Omron’s contract, however, required it to dispose of the footage, apparently taken for about a year starting in 2008, after it finished using it. The data were not to be used for any other purpose.

Omron ended up using the image data in a project with an affiliate of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry from 2006 to 2010 to develop a system to track people who pass through ticket gates without paying or  people who started fights.

Omron pocketed about ¥250 million from the ministry for participating in the project.

JR East said it is regrettable that Omron used the images without its consent.

Later, in 2012, Omron took more passenger images without consent, this time at West Japan Railway Co.’s Kyoto Station, to develop a technology to pick out individuals from moving crowds of about 100 people for a project by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

Omron was paid about ¥240 million for the surveillance work.

An Omron public relations representative said the company views the incidents as something that should not have happened and is taking them very seriously.

It is unclear what became of the commuters’ images or whether the two government projects relied on data gathered from the JR Suica card system.

Suica, launched in November 2001, uses prepaid electronic money cards that double as commuter passes. The cards are reportedly used by more than 40 million train and bus riders in the Tokyo area alone and thus can be mined for valuable marketing insights into commuter traffic and customer shopping habits.

Although JR East said it altered the Suica data before selling it to Hitachi to prevent card users from being identified, critics say the dots in big data can be connected if needed to identify individuals.

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