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In recent years, two moves concerning the handling of personal information have created clearly different political and public reactions in Japan. A law for strengthening the protection of personal information has been generally accepted by the public and people are learning its “dos” and “don’ts.” By contrast, the implementation three years ago of a residents’ registration system using an electronic network has been strongly rejected not only by individuals but also by local governments. And more than 10 court battles have started demanding either the scrapping of the system or the recognition of an individual’s right to opt out of it.

In the first landmark ruling last week, the Kanazawa District Court endorsed a new right for Japanese — the “right to control one’s personal data.” The decision was handed down on a suit filed by residents of Ishikawa Prefecture who had demanded that their addresses and other personal data be deleted from the national electronic registry network known as “Juki Net.” The ruling said refusing residents’ requests for removal of their data from the system is a violation of the right and is unconstitutional.

The network, launched in 2002, stores residents’ personal information and shares it among national agencies and local governments. However, due to concern over its security, the town of Yamatsuri in Fukushima Prefecture, Tokyo’s Suginami Ward as well as the suburban city of Kunitachi have refused to join the system. The ruling is likely to seriously affect national and local governments’ plans to administer government electronically.

It was the first ruling handed down among 13 similar suits filed with district courts nationwide. It is hoped that further debate will be conducted on the “right to control one’s personal data.” The ruling said the right to privacy is guaranteed under Article 13 of the Constitution and that residents’ names, addresses, dates of birth and sex listed in the basic resident registries, as well as code numbers assigned by municipalities to residents, are private information that each resident has the “right to control.”

The court, pondering whether the Juki Net was crucial to the extent of sacrificing residents’ privacy, concluded that providing information to the net violated residents’ right to control their personal data — if they did not waive their rights to privacy and had demanded the removal of their data from the net.

It should be noted that the court did not say the Juki Net itself was unconstitutional; it said it was unconstitutional for authorities to refuse residents’ requests for removal of their data from the net. It prioritized residents’ rights over the national policy of establishing an electronic registry network.

Acknowledging that the net was intended to promote convenience for residents and administrative efficiency, the ruling said it is up to each individual to decide whether to prioritize convenience or privacy.

Establishing an electronic government based on information technology strategies is an important policy challenge for the government. However, residents’ privacy and local governments’ freedom of choice should not be compromised in prioritizing administrative efficiency. Ways should be explored to adjust conflicting interests.

On May 31, the Nagoya District Court also handed down a ruling on the Juki Net. Unlike its Kanazawa counterpart, the court rejected a residents’ suit on the grounds that, since information in the basic residents’ registry has been accessible to anybody for some time, that the right to keep the information secret is not necessarily strong. However, the importance of the residents’ registry system itself was held in doubt.

The basic residents’ registry system needs a thorough review. A man arrested by Aichi prefectural police for entering a private home and molesting a girl in February admitted that he obtained information on the girl’s family from the ward office’s resident registry records. Police found the addresses of more than 100 women at the man’s home.

Direct mail based on information apparently obtained from the residents’ registry is common. The Nagoya District Court’s ruling — that there is no problem with continuing the system since residents’ addresses and other information have been accessible to anybody for some time — is dubious.

Juki Net-based ID cards are held by only 0.43 percent of registered residents. This apparently shows the lack of public trust in the system. Whether local resident registry records should be linked to the Juki Net or not, close examination should be made regarding information listed in the registry and the present system of opening information to the public. Efforts to fully implement the electronic registration system should be made only after such steps to strengthen the protection of personal information have been taken.

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