With upbeat music flowing in the background, popular actress Aya Ueto enthuses about a controversial government project in a state-sponsored TV commercial.

“My Number is your own number that makes your life a whole lot more convenient,” she says with a telegenic smile while sitting next to a rabbitlike character dubbed “Maina-chan” — the latest in an interminable line of Japanese mascots created to promote a commercial or public cause.

Starting in mid-October, the government will send all residents in Japan, native or foreign, a randomly generated 12-digit identification number that will in principle remain unchangeable in their lifetime. The program will officially commence in January, when people will be asked by employers and city officials to present their My Number ID when conducting administrative matters related to taxes and social welfare benefits.

The government claims the unprecedented identification system, similar to the Social Security number used in the United States, will help reduce red tape and paperwork.

But Hiromichi Morita, a planning officer in the Cabinet Secretariat, which oversees the project, said there’s another motive at work.

“With the My Number system, we aim to create a much fairer society, where the government can ascertain people’s income more accurately, leaving no room for wrongdoing such as tax evasion and illicit receipt of social benefits. That’s our ultimate goal,” Morita said.

With distribution of the numbers only weeks away, however, public awareness of the system and its implications appears inadequate.

Critics also warn that privacy breaches are highly probable and that the system, once in full swing, will probably give authorities leeway to keep tabs on the most sensitive details of anyone’s life. The push to make more active use of My Number in the future, they say, points to an “undemocratic” shift to a surveillance society.

The government will send out My Number notices to all citizens in accordance with the address on their residence certificates. Those without certificates will not get a number,  meaning they will have to go fill out the traditional paperwork for administrative matters after the system kicks off.

The notices for My Number will also include an application form for what the government terms an “Individual Number Card (My Number card)” — an IC-equipped card that, from January on, could work in lieu of driver’s licenses, passports and other forms of identification.

Obtaining the My Number card is not mandatory, but to maximize its prevalence the government wants it to function as a health insurance card, credit/cash card and employee ID card at private companies in the coming years.

In one potential scenario, the Finance Ministry is thinking of launching a tax refund program to ease the impact of the scheduled consumption tax hike to 10 percent from 8 percent in April 2017. As part of the plan, the ministry would require consumers to present the My Number card wherever they shop to claim the refund on the 2-point hike for food and drink.

The government will also launch the Internet site Maina Portal in January 2017 so individuals can check all records of personal information exchanges made by municipalities and other entities via their My Number. The site will initially only be in Japanese, Morita said.

My Number will be needed to file tax returns or apply for social welfare benefits, including child allowances and pensions at municipal offices. As well as employers and city officials, staff at pension and tax offices, Hello Work job-placement agencies, and financial institutions will be authorized to ask for one’s My Number.

Pollsters and clerks at video rental shops, for example, won’t be allowed such access, Morita said.

Unlike the U.S. system, face-to-face identity confirmation will be necessary when conveying one’s My Number to a third party.

“In other words, you can pretty much assume something fishy is going on if a stranger asks about your number, for example, on the phone or without even confirming who you are,” Morita said.

To avert a public backlash, the government initially plans to limit the use of My Number to areas pertaining to tax, social security and disaster relief benefits. But use of the system will inevitably expand.

Earlier this month, the Diet passed a bill to revise the My Number system law so the ID numbers can be linked to bank accounts on a voluntary basis starting in 2018. This will make it significantly easier to monitor financial assets, and the government hopes to make the link mandatory from 2021.

A state-drafted blueprint for the expansion of My Number also shows it may be linked to koseki (family registers) and passports in coming years.

Privacy invasion

With the vast use of ID numbers in the works, concerns are rife about the potential for information leaks.

The government, which has its hands full with cyberattacks, is downplaying these fears, saying that the mandatory face-to-face ID checks will thwart impostors. It also emphasizes that, under the My Number system, the state will not centralize, but divide, the management of one’s personal information.

Only a limited number of officials and staffers in each entity are authorized to access private information via My Number, which will be encrypted as it travels online from one user to another. The government will also set up a special committee tasked with monitoring a network in which information exchanges are made and, if necessary, conduct on-site inspections at municipalities. Criminal penalties for violators of personal information protection laws will be stiffened as well.

Tokyo-based lawyer Seiji Mizunaga, however, warned that privacy breaches are inevitable.

While acknowledging that My Number has better countermeasures in place against impostors and hackers than Social Security does, he emphasized that the risk “can’t be zero.”

“The government rules out the possibility of impostors because of the ID check process,” Mizunaga said. “But forging or illegally obtaining drivers’ licenses and passports is nothing unusual in today’s world. There is no guarantee that the same won’t happen to My Number cards.”

Another big concern in Japan, he said, is abuse of authority — namely the police.

A law grants the police free rein to use My Number to access and collect whatever private information they need for “investigative purposes,” he said. What’s worse, police can do so unsupervised by the monitoring committee. The impunity suggests police activities are virtually “untouchable,” he said, adding that the day may be approaching when police ask pedestrians to present their My Number cards during routine stops.

“In asking municipalities or other entities about a particular individual they want information on, police have traditionally depended on four key factors — name, address, birthdate and gender — to identify that person. But sometimes they’ve had a hard time collecting information if people change their name or relocate,” Mizunaga said.

“In this regard, for the police, My Number will be like a master key through which they can identify their target with unprecedented speed and ease.”

Low public awareness

Mizunaga also pointed out that public awareness of the system remains far from sufficient.

In a survey this summer by the Cabinet Office of 1,773 individuals nationwide, 43.5 percent said they know what My Number is about, compared with 28.3 percent in January.

Despite the improved recognition, the lawyer said confusion will be guaranteed once the notification letters are sent in October, with swindlers likely to go on a calling spree to steal My Number details from the public.

It wasn’t until early August that the government announced that people who don’t live at their registered addresses — such as those fleeing domestic abuse or natural disasters — can ask municipalities beforehand to send the My Number notifications to their current locations. The deadline is Sept. 25.

“The announcement came out on incredibly short notice and there is just too little time left until the deadline,” Mizunaga said.

Although each My Number is supposed to be unchangeable, people can apply for a different number if their lives become endangered by it, Morita from the Cabinet Secretariat said.

The Cabinet Secretariat offers information in English about the My Number system on its website www.cas.go.jp/jp/seisaku/bangoseido/english.html

But the Japanese-only aspect of the Maina Portal represents “fundamental shortcomings of the system” and suggests the government has little regard for foreign residents’ human rights, said Akira Hatate, a board member of the Japan Civil Liberties Union.

Undemocratic shift

Theoretically speaking, the My Number program should be welcome if Japan is aiming to become a welfare state, since such a system allows the government to better grasp the income situation of the public so wealth is redistributed more fairly, said Tsuyoshi Inaba, co-founder of independent homeless support agency Moyai.

But Inaba said this won’t be possible under the conservative administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose underlying stance is to leave the poor in a lurch under the pretext of “self-responsibility” — a concept in which the have-nots are encouraged to make ends meet by themselves or with the help of relatives.

Given the Abe administration’s apparent eagerness to cut back on social security costs, as evidenced by its mammoth curtailment of monthly seikatsu hogo (welfare benefits) last year, My Number may be abused in a way that allows the government to ratchet up surveillance on poor people’s income so it can crack down harder on them, he said.

Takashi Shiraishi, a representative of a citizens’ group calling for abolition of the My Number program, said the system is an eerie harbinger of the ongoing transformation to a surveillance society.

“The system is going to grant more power to the state and it’s perhaps something a communist state has a better affinity with,” Shiraishi said.

“Despite its supposed status as a liberal country, Japan is morphing into something of an authoritarian state.”

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