National | FOCUS

Red flags abound as government kicks off My Number system with notices

Kyodo

Despite being trumpeted as ushering in a more efficient, egalitarian society, the controversial My Number system that starts with identification numbers being sent out to residents of Japan this week is raising serious concerns about invasions of privacy and the security of personal information.

These are not the only concerns, however. Others decry the heavy burden the project will put on businesses that will be tasked with collecting the identification numbers of employees and part-time workers — not to mention their family dependents.

Add to this the ruckus over how exactly a tax rebate proposal under the system will work, fears about photo-ID cards being lost, and question marks over whether municipalities are capable of handling the expected number of applications.

As of Monday, all residents of the country, Japanese and foreign, will begin receiving by mail randomly generated 12-digit numbers that ideally will not change throughout their lifetimes.

The government is aiming for residents to receive a provisional paper ID card by the middle of this month, before the system comes into full effect in January. The provisional cards can be exchanged for a photo-ID My Number with an embedded data chip, which the government highly recommends.

Arguing the new system will cut away red tape by improving the efficiency of administrative tasks, the government says it will enable the public sector to keep abreast of individual tax and social-welfare information linked to ID numbers.

The new system will also be able to more precisely ascertain individuals’ incomes, leaving little opportunity for tax fraud or illicit receipt of social benefits. The ID numbers will be required to file tax returns or receive social welfare benefits, including pensions and child allowances, at municipal offices.

But revelations in May of the massive hacking of the Japan Pension Service did not help the case for introducing the My Number system. The unprecedented data leak has left the public deeply distrustful of government handling of personal information, as well as its ability to thwart cyberattacks.

The government, however, argues that the risk of bulk information leaks under the new system will be low because management of information will not be centralized but divided among agencies. Nevertheless, it will likely urge vigilance in protecting My Number cards and advise people not to entrust them to others.

But before this, the system must clear a first hurdle: whether the initial My Number notices can be properly distributed in a timely fashion. This is expected to be a litmus test as to whether the system takes root with the public.

An estimated 55 million households are in line to receive the numbers, which will be dispatched from municipalities by registered mail.

Those who opt to exchange the paper ID card will obtain a free photo-ID My Number card that can be used from January in place of a driver’s license and other forms of identification.

My Number cards are also likely to function as health insurance cards starting in 2017 and the ID numbers should also be able to be linked on a voluntary basis to bank accounts from 2018. In an attempt at improving tax collection, the government hopes to make the bank link mandatory beginning in 2021.

“The personal number cards will be an indispensable part of daily life,” said Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi at the first meeting to promote the spread of the My Number card system.

The government, she added, is determined to accurately explain the merits of the new system.

The sheer logistics for companies that will have to collect identification numbers of employees, part-timers and their dependents in order to submit withholding tax certificates and social welfare-related documents to tax agencies speaks to the enormity of a project many believe is laden with serious flaws.

The Finance Ministry has even proposed launching a tax refund program to alleviate some of the impact of the scheduled consumption tax hike from 8 percent to 10 percent in April 2017.

Under this plan, consumers would be required to swipe their My Number IDs at registers whenever they shop to claim the rebate from the 2-point hike for food and nonalcoholic drinks.

The government estimates more than 10 million My Number photo-ID cards will be issued in the first year. But as this amounts to only about 10 percent of the population, there is a risk that some people will be unable to receive their tax rebates when the consumption hike is implemented.

My Number cards, which will not only contain tax and pension information but the names, birthdates and addresses of their users, are more likely to be lost when people carry them around for shopping, critics argue.

There is also sure to be a debate over how to treat elderly My Number users, who might find it difficult to get around, while the issue of how children are to use the cards is another matter to consider.

Many people believe the My Number system sets a bad precedent, bringing the country a step closer to becoming a surveillance state.

As use of the system becomes more prevalent among private companies, the risk that personal information will be leaked will only increase, many argue. People are also uncomfortable with the idea of the government having access to their shopping history.

It is also unclear whether all the terminals necessary to scan My Number information can be installed in retailers in time for the system’s kickoff.

Who will be saddled with the costs of installing the machines has also yet to be decided. Were they to fall on small businesses, the burden would likely be heavy. It also seems likely that the cards will be difficult to use at food vendors or for services such as takeout delivery.

That said, the system is not without its merits.

From July 2017, people will no longer be required to submit certificates of earnings when applying for child allowances, nor will they need to attach their certificate of residence when applying for pensions.

Receiving natural-disaster relief will also become smoother, because under the My Number system, identities can be easily confirmed.

Still, enthusiasm for the system remains lukewarm.

According to a Cabinet Office survey conducted between July and August, just 24 percent of about 1,700 respondents said they hoped to obtain a photo-ID My Number card, while 26 percent said they did not desire one.

Currently, the Cabinet Office and Consumer Affairs Agency are facing another challenge in introducing the system: swindlers.

Both bodies are urging people to beware of those who might take advantage of the My Number introduction to illicitly obtain personal information such as bank account numbers over the phone, by visiting homes or via email.

In distributing My Number ID notices, government agencies will never ask for bank account numbers or the state of one’s assets. The notices will all come by registered mail, so people should be beware of any packages claiming to be part of the My Number system but coming by ordinary mail or delivery firms requesting payment for parcels.