Despite protests by critics, Japan has deployed a mandatory identification network that requires each Japanese citizen to have an 11-digit identification number, similar to the Social Security numbers assigned to U.S. citizens.
The network, dubbed Juki Net, is designed to modernize current paper-based government systems for providing benefits and other services to citizens. However, it has met with much resistance from protesters who say the government will have too much personal information and that the system will likely invade people’s privacy.
The system joins local data pools together into a single network and funnels personal data — such as identification information and birth dates — into a centralized database. Critics believe the new network will leave private data exposed to hackers.
One group of protesters has appealed to the country’s courts in the hope that the system will be found unconstitutional. Five towns, representing 4 million residents, have said they will not be party to the system and have refused to go online.
Yokohama officials said they would register only those citizens who opt in. But according to the Japanese government, not participating in the network will be illegal.
Yesterday’s launch in 14 municipalities was marred by computer glitches, which did little to inspire the confidence of critics, who worry that the system will be vulnerable to attack.
The government has tried to allay security concerns by saying it has devised a detection system that can spot inappropriate activity. And, it vowed to deal harshly with anyone who misuses or reveals personal information housed in the system.
Violators will receive a fine equivalent to US$8,300 and up to two years in prison.
Earlier this summer, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s government promised to create legislation to protect personal information. But the law was never adopted, because critics claimed that it would not adequately protect citizens’ privacy and was likely to hamstring journalists.
Tokyo mayor Tadao Kokubo beseeched Home Affairs Minister Toranosuke Katayama in a letter to delay the network’s launch because “there would likely be problems if it is run without legal arrangements for the protection of private information.”
Concerns Not Unfounded
There is good reason to worry. As U.S. citizens have learned, identity theft is a growing problem and is “apparently getting worse,” Eric Hemmendinger, a security analyst at the Aberdeen Group, told the E-Commerce Times.
In fact, identity theft accounted for 42 percent of the 204,000 complaints filed in the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel database in 2001.
And in April, crackers were able to access state computers in California, which housed Social Security numbers for 265,000 people on the state’s payroll.
Civilians More Vulnerable
While Social Security administration databases are probably more vulnerable, on the civilian side — as opposed to on the military or intelligence side — said Hemmendinger, there are “easier ways to get Social Security numbers for people.”
Everywhere that information is collected is a potentially vulnerable point, he pointed out, particularly when a Social Security number is linked with a payment tool, such as a credit card number.
In Japan, in addition to the technology concerns there are social concerns. Saying at a press conference that the new system “treats individuals as things, not people,” a Nihon University professor noted that assigning numbers to people is an “extremely dangerous” approach.