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The government launched a nationwide resident registry network Monday, with several municipalities refusing to join it. The controversial system, known as Juki Net, has many people wondering whether it is designed to promote convenience for residents or to tighten the government’s grip on basic personal data.

Juki Net assigns an 11-digit identification code to every resident throughout the country so that personal data, such as name, address, date of birth and sex, can be transmitted online from local government to central government offices. The network allows people to obtain resident certificates anywhere in the country by simply presenting their ID cards.

Trying to allay public fears about the possible abuse of data, Home Affairs Minister Toranosuke Katayama has said the government is taking “adequate security and privacy precautions.” It remains to be seen, however, whether these measures are sufficient to prevent leaks from the government database and other irregularities. The government says Juki Net will improve administrative efficiency at both the national and the local level. But the boycott by six municipalities, including Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, demonstrates that many residents are worried about possible security lapses and privacy violations.

The six cities, wards and towns that have refused to join the network have a combined population of about 4 million. There are far more critics and skeptics in the rest of the country, even though their local governments have linked their computers to the central government. This points up the need for legislation that effectively safeguards the privacy of resident data.

The heads of the six municipalities have given a number of reasons for their boycott, the most important being the absence of a reliable privacy law. In 1999, the late Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi told the Diet that such a law would be put into effect before a national registry network went online. As yet there is no such legislation.

In the last Diet session, which ended July 31, lawmakers discussed a bill for personal data protection. The bill, however, was found wanting in terms of preventing data leaks and other abuses. Moreover, it included questionable plans to control media activity. Faced with public criticism, the proposed privacy legislation was carried over to the next session. The government should devise a more credible data protection system, instead of trying to patch up the situation through cosmetic changes. That would be the best way to address persistent public concerns over privacy protection.

The second reason cited for opting out of Juki Net is that civil servants might gain illicit access to the database. The worry about a “snooping” government is real after what happened in Yokkaichi City, Mie Prefecture. Municipal officials there, it has been revealed, “peeked” into the personal data of a nonregular employee 220 times over 15 years.

The government, to be sure, has taken steps to prohibit illegal use of data and to stiffen penalties. It says use by private entities is also prohibited. Given the vast scale of the Juki network, however, there seems to be a need to take greater precautions, including measures to prevent abuse in both hardware and software and to strengthen ethics education for public employees.

The third reason given for refusing Juki Net is that ID codes might be used for many other purposes. Currently these numbers are to be used in 93 kinds of administrative service, including issuance of resident certificates. A government bill now on the table is designed to increase the number by 175, including issuance of passports. One wonders whether the network should be used on such an extensive scale.

Because Juki Net brings resident data under the control of the central government, citizens groups have criticized it for putting a number on the back of every citizen. The danger is that basic data like addresses and names might be used in combination with other types of private information, such as clinical history.

The network will go into full operation in August 2003 when electronic ID cards are issued. Before then, the government must prepare a new bill that fixes the flaws in the pending privacy legislation. In the meantime, the debate on the privacy issue should be deepened so that a credible system of safeguards can be established with the full support of the people.

The protection of personal information is intertwined with the disclosure of public information. A government that properly discloses its information will take proper precautions to protect private information. That is the way to build confidence in the government information network. Confidence is a scarce commodity in present-day Japan.

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