Japan Not Embracing My Number

Japan's My NumberJapan's My Number system debuted this month amid protests and PR campaigns. This will be the first national ID system in Japan, and a move toward the "single card society" that the Prime Minister wants to create. The system is analogous to Social Security numbers in the US and will consolidate many separate systems into one ID, and link together all government, health, financial and other records.

As a country with disparate ID systems requiring people to carry a wallet full of cards, it's clear why the government wants to move toward a consolidated system with more current technology. The administrative burden is immense and accuracy is lacking.

Two other much cited objectives are the speedy delivery of disaster relief benefits, and the tightening of taxation. It is common for people to have second jobs for which they are paid in cash, and without paying income tax. Another angle on taxation concerns a proposed two tier sales tax system. Sales tax will rise from 8% to 10%, but under the proposed program people would swipe their cards when making purchases, and then be able to apply for a rebate of 2% for taxes paid on food and other essential items.

The majority of the populace is against the My Number system, and there have been large and frequent protests. The government is conducting PR campaigns to both change opinion and to raise public awareness about the implementation process.

The rollout is not expected to go smoothly. The first step, already begun, is to send notification cards to every household. The notifications will contain the ID numbers of all individuals living in a household, including children. Because urban dwellers are often away for months at a time, and people often fail to report a change of address to the government, many cards will not be able to be delivered. Estimates range from 10 to 25% of cards being undeliverable, depending on the neighborhood.

Sometime after the notifications have been delivered, people will be informed when they can go to their local municipal office to pick up the actual card. That process is also expected to be inefficient.

Objections Abound
Objections to the My Number system are many, including increased opportunity for fraud, fears of a growing Surveillance State, and the difficulties of implementing the system for employers and businesses.

Some opponents claim My Number is a boondoggle designed to funnel tax money into struggling IT firms. Implementation is estimated to cost trillions of yen and ongoing upgrades and maintenance will provide continuing revenues. In a recent arrest, a minister was charged with taking a bribe for helping a firm win a contract for work on the My Number system.

Identity theft and cyber security are top concerns, and justifiably so. During a recent hack of the national pension system 125 million people's data was stolen. In 2014 there were several massive data breaches.  In one involving Japan Airlines, malware was installed on 23 company computers, seven of which were found to be sending data to a server in Hong Kong. 750,000 people's personal data was exposed. At Benesse Corporation, a data breach affected almost 50 million people in Japan - nearly one third of the country's total population. It resulted in Japan's largest multi-plaintiff lawsuit.

Privacy Legislation
Data privacy law in Japan is one of the oldest in Asia, dating back to 2003. Japan has long been less concerned about data privacy than many countries, and has no central data protection authority. The recent breaches have led to mounting attention and proposed new legislation. 

Under revisions to current law an independent authority would be established to enforce the laws and regulations and would be given stronger powers than each industry ministry currently has. Other reforms address expanding the definition of personal data to include biometric data, and providing separate protection for sensitive data.