An in-house investigation by the Defense Agency has confirmed that the agency kept tabs on people who had requested information from it under the Freedom-of-Information Law. According to a fact-finding report released Tuesday, background lists were maintained by the agency’s internal bureaus and all three armed services.

While the list held by the Maritime Self-Defense Force was prepared personally by an information officer, the other lists were compiled officially as part of information-disclosure activity. The report says the MSDF list — which included footnote entries on information seekers’ political orientation — violated privacy legislation but that the other lists were legal.

There is no denying, however, that the compilation of background lists is an abuse of the disclosure system and a breach of public trust. The report effectively acknowledges that background information was collected more or less systemically by the civilian and military branches of the Defense Agency.

After the scandal came to light in late May, internal bureaus and the chief staff office of the Air Self-Defense Force deleted sensitive items from the lists and posted them back on the internal computer network. “Sanitize” would be a better word to describe the deletions, although the agency has denied any “coverup.” The report says a similar incident occurred in the Defense Facilities Administration Agency.

Collecting personal data in addition to authorized items (names, birth dates, etc.) is a violation of privacy — something that defense authorities should be particularly careful to avoid. It is only natural, therefore, that agency officials involved, including Vice Minister Yasunari Ito, should be duly punished. Director General Gen Nakatani probably cannot escape responsibility, either.

This scandal points out the need for a deeper understanding of the disclosure system, including related legislation. First, the disclosure system is designed to promote government accountability by giving people access to public information. As such, the system must provide assurances that information will be released upon request without scrutiny. Background checks are inimical to the concept of disclosure.

Second, even personal data items that do not immediately identify their sources require protection, if anonymity is to be respected. An anonymous list of data may violate privacy legislation if it includes items that, in combination with other lists, will identify their origins.

That legislation – which calls for the protection of computer-processed personal data held by government offices – prohibits officials from using or offering such data except for stated purposes. The possibility is that including personal data on information seekers in a list or posting it online might constitute a violation of this law.

The drawback in this legislation is that it has no punitive provisions. So Defense Agency officials involved are expected to be punished under the Self-Defense Forces Law. Normally, however, violations of the rules of information disclosure and personal-data protection should be punished under relevant legislation.

The scandal reportedly has elicited sympathy from within the government and the ruling parties, the argument being that the Defense Agency should be allowed to collect and internally circulate certain types of private information. The danger is that such action, unless confined within reasonable bounds, could end up creating a secretive agency snooping on “questionable” people.

The first thing that needs to be done is to establish ground rules for the handling of personal data on those seeking disclosure. The bottom line is that only information authorized by law should be properly collected and stored. In a poll of about 5,000 agency civilians and SDF personnel, everybody denied knowledge of any data misuse. One can only hope that is true.

One major fallout from the list irregularities is that public trust in the Defense Agency has been badly shaken. To regain lost ground the agency must begin with the education of personnel in charge of disclosure. At the same time, the government must set as soon as possible the operating rules they must follow.

Two related bills are now before the Diet. One is an omnibus bill for protecting personal information that would apply to both the public and private sectors. The other calls for a revision to the current personal data-protection law for public offices. The premise that public offices are immune to violations is unrealistic. The Defense Agency scandal reveals a pressing need for a wholesale legislative review.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.