Commentary / Japan

Cybersecurity threat looms large in Japan

by Kat Devlin

Contributing Writer

As host of last week’s Group of 20 summit and the upcoming 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Japan has had many reasons to focus on the security of the nation’s cyberdefenses. For their part, the Japanese public worries that cyberattacks from other countries pose a major threat, and they have doubts about their government’s preparedness for dealing with an attack of this kind.

As a 2018 Pew Research Center survey of Japanese public opinion highlights, 81 percent say attacks on computer systems launched from other countries are a major threat to Japan. Such fears are up 10 percentage points since 2016. Cyberattacks have been the top international worry among Japanese every year since 2016, surpassing issues such as climate change, North Korea’s nuclear program and neighboring China’s power and influence.

Internet users in Japan voice more worry about cyberattacks than those who do not use the net (84 percent and 71 percent, respectively, see these attacks as a major threat), though people without internet access are less likely to offer a response. Members of the Japanese public with higher levels of income and education are also especially worried about digital attacks.

Japan’s views of cyberattacks as a major threat place it apart from most other countries. Of the 26 nations included in the Pew Research Center survey, only four labeled cyberattacks a major threat more often than any other item tested: Japan (81 percent major threat), the United States (74 percent), the Netherlands (72 percent) and South Africa (61 percent). In 13 countries, people name climate change as the top international threat; in eight others the Islamic State is seen as the top threat. In South Korea, 81 percent express concern about cyberthreats, but more South Koreans overall are worried about climate change (86 percent) or China’s power and influence (82 percent).

The Japanese public’s concern about cybersecurity may be well-founded. A 2018 report by the National Police Agency described increasing cyberthreats, such as occurrences of ransomware and spear phishing attacks, in the country since 2017.

Amid these reports, a significant portion of the Japanese public thinks their country is not well-equipped to meet such a challenge. About half (52 percent) say Japan is ill-prepared to handle a major attack on the country’s computer systems, while roughly 4 in 10 (41 percent) think it is ready. Those with a favorable view of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party are more likely than those with an unfavorable view to think Japan is well-prepared to handle a cyberattack. This comes almost two years after a WannaCry ransomware attack infected thousands of computers throughout the private sector and spurred the government to launch a new national cybersecurity strategy. Many aspects of the new plan, like increasing private sector use of cyber-risk assessments, have been lauded by experts. But the path forward has not been without its missteps: A Cabinet minister for cybersecurity admitted in November that he had never used a computer.

The people of Japan express varying levels of concern about specific scenarios involving cyberattacks on their country. More than 8 in 10 (84 percent) think it is likely that a future cyberattack will result in damage to public infrastructure. A similar proportion (83 percent) says a cyberattack will likely lead to illicit access to Japan’s national security information. A smaller but significant portion (52 percent) believes such an attack may potentially involve tampering with election results.

These concerns about each scenario hold true for adults regardless of age, gender and level of education. Internet users more often than nonusers think it likely that a future cyberattack could bring about each of these scenarios; however, people who aren’t on the net are less prone to have an opinion.

The government has begun to address at least part of this anxiety, meeting with operators of critical infrastructure to discuss cyberstrategy. Simultaneously, it has blacklisted Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp. from the government procurement process after increased espionage suspicions relating to the companies’ ties to the Chinese government.

The unique role of technology and automation in Japan may add to the public’s worry regarding cybersecurity. Roughly 9 in 10 adults own a mobile phone, including 66 percent who report owning a smartphone. People between the ages of 18 and 34 are especially likely to have a smartphone (96 percent), though the ownership rate for people 50 and older (44 percent) has more than doubled in just the past three years.

In Japan, already the fourth-largest user of industrial manufacturing robots in the world, roughly 9 in 10 believe that, in the next 50 years, robots and computers will be doing much of the work currently done by humans.

In addition, for every 100 people in Japan there are 8.2 internet of things devices online, according to a 2015 report from the OECD. Meanwhile, Japan ranks as one of the worst offenders for enabling spam — a common vehicle for spreading malware — and remains a prime target for botnets that can parasitically hand over control of the internet of things and mobile device networks to actors with malicious intentions.

The government has identified cyberdefense as a key national priority, and Abe seems keen on making headway in both the public and private spheres. But for now, the public remains leery at best when considering whether their country’s cyberdefenses will withstand the challenges of the future.

Kat Devlin is a research associate focusing on global attitudes at Pew Research Center.

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