The Defense Agency is at the center of a privacy scandal. An information officer of the Maritime Self-Defense Force is said to have prepared a sensitive list of personal data, with defamatory footnotes, about people who had requested information from the agency under the Freedom of Information Law. The list was reportedly read by about 20 SDF personnel. That constitutes a grave breach of trust and a serious violation of privacy.

The Defense Agency’s decision to take disciplinary action against the lieutenant commander is only to be expected. But punishing him just for violating the SDF Law may not be enough, for what he did also affects legislation designed to protect personal data, including a privacy bill now before the Diet. The agency should first find out exactly what happened and make it public.

A person requesting information from the Defense Agency must fill in a request form at the agency’s information disclosure section, stating his or her name, address and the place where he or she normally can be contacted during office hours. It is unnecessary to give any other personal data.

However, the official, who was in charge of information disclosure in the Maritime Staff Office, obtained copies of forms submitted by 142 people from April last year to March this year, according to the agency. Based on the copies, and also using the Internet and other means of collecting information, he prepared an unauthorized list of these people, including items such as their occupation, affiliated organizations and birth date. The list also included derogatory comments on some of them; one person was described as an “SDF official with antiwar thoughts.”

The MSDF chief of staff was quoted as saying that the list was prepared to “facilitate” disclosure. That is little more than a lame excuse. If information cannot be disclosed without further knowledge of personal background, such as character traits and affiliated groups, then there is something definitely wrong with the way the agency is dealing with disclosure. The government is not allowed to collect personal data beyond the limits set by law.

The Defense Agency and all other government offices need to reaffirm that the disclosure system is meant to enhance administrative transparency and promote democratic government. Anyone is allowed to request disclosure for whatever purpose, and public offices are obligated to comply.

The MSDF official has reportedly told investigators that the list was complied with the help of intelligence and security specialists in the agency, including those in the military services. What is emerging is a picture of systematic involvement, rather than just an isolated act by a single official. It is even possible that the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of thought and creed may have been violated.

The Freedom of Information Law provides for no penalties against those in charge of handling information who have prepared unauthorized lists of personal data or who have leaked confidential information to outsiders. In the past, the government said such punitive provisions were unnecessary because violations could be punished under the National Civil Service Law.

The scandal, however, suggests a need for a fundamental review of the law. Reason dictates that an outright violation by an official who handles personal data should be punished more severely than other offenses committed by civil servants. The law should be amended to include punitive rules.

Current laws governing information disclosure and privacy protection, as well as related bills on the Diet agenda, tend to deal more severely with the private sector than with the public sector. The assumption, it seems, is that government offices are not likely to commit violations. But what happened in the Defense Agency has shattered that assumption.

Authorities may need information on “antiestablishment” individuals and organizations, but such information in official hands may do more harm than good. To make sure that public agencies do not succumb to the temptation to gather such information it is necessary to improve the disclosure system.

Under the Freedom of Information Law, the government is not obligated in principle to release information on defense and diplomatic affairs. This substantially limits the scope of disclosure and the number of people who seek such information. But it also leaves room for excessive secrecy, making those requesting information liable to unnecessary scrutiny. After all, transparency is the best antidote to secrecy. It is also the best way to dispel public concerns over information disclosure and privacy protection.

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