Varieties of anti-surveillance activism in Japan

Although some progressive activists would like it to be otherwise, anti-surveillance feeling is not confined to the left, indeed in many countries, like the USA, libertarian individualist right-wing anti-surveillance activism is perhaps more common. And it seems that such a position is not unusual in Japan either.

Having returned from a weekend of hot springs, fine sake-tasting and eating way too much, today we met with the Mayor of the Suginami ward of Tokyo, Hiroshi Yamada, a prominent figure in the anti-juki-net campaign, and a also one of the leaders of a group of right-wing figures trying to promote a new nationalist grouping at that end of the Japanese political spectrum. But this new right is not at all a simple matter of ‘back to the 1930s’ that some commentators would have you believe. Yes, this group – which also includes the Mayors of major cities including Yokohama and Nagoya as well as popular journalists like Yoshiko Sakurai – has very conservative, revisionist views, on Japanese history, but in many ways they have far more in common with the new US libertarian right in their rejection of large state and high taxes, and in other areas too, for example Sakurai has rather unscientific views on climate change!

Part of the this libertarian outlook is the rejection of state intrusion into the private lives of individuals. Mayor Yamada saw the juki-net system as part of unwelcome movement towards a more top-down society, concentrating power at the centre. He was very clear that the state’s ability to collect information on the individual should be based on what the individual wanted to give up, not on what the state thought it needed (this is very much the opposite of what the Prime Minister’s IT Strategic HQ said to us last week). He was also most concerned about the risks posed by large databases, both as an attractive target to external hackers and to corrupt use from inside operators. Yamada is not opposed to what he calls IT shakai (IT society), but the use of IT should be based on what is useful to individuals, and of course what is actually he needed, he argued, would often be less expensive than the massive computerisation schemes favoured by the current administration as part of their i-Japan strategy. In this sense, he said he would oppose any move to unnecessary centralised databases and certainly to any possible national ID register or card.

In most respects, what Mayor Yamada said could probably have been said by any left-wing civil liberties activist in the UK, or by conservative right opponents of intrusive state like Conservative ex-Shadow Cabinet Minister, David Davis. Perhaps many aspects of what is felt to be wrong with surveillance society do not correlate neatly with old left-right divisions. This view was shared by Toshimaru Ogura, a Toyama University professor and major figure in left-wing anti-surveillance activism whom we met with just afterwards, along with campaigning journalist, Midori Ogasawara again. Just as the Convention on Modern Liberty event earlier in the year showed for the UK, there are many different varieties of anti-surveillance feeling in Japan, and whilst opponents may disagree with each other, and may even find other aspects of the politics of their erstwhile collaborators utterly distasteful, they do collaborate, even if it is only for short periods.

Professor Ogura’s analysis, as that of Ogasawara and indeed of Kanshi-no! whom we met the other day, is much more focused on the way in which surveillance excludes and discriminates – against union members, activists, gaikokujin (foreigners) and so on – and also the ways in which it favours the interests not just of the state but capital. We’ll be talking to groups who deal with the concerns of these excluded people in the last week we are here. Privacy is important, but Ogura’s analysis is concerned with the disproportionate effects of surveillance. It is not just that privacy is affected but that particular groups’ and individuals’ rights are damaged more than others, and those people are not generally the ‘ordinary taxpayers’ to whom Yamada and the libertarian right are trying to appeal.

Like me, Professor Ogura is also particularly interested in the way in which particular corporations and business coalitions pushing technological ‘solutions’ to social and organisational problems can have a profound influence the way government makes decisions. Such coalitions would still be there however large government was, and in some ways, without a government large enough to stand up to the private sector, a different kind of more purely market-driven surveillance society would emerge. In that sense, it is what government does, and to whom it responds, that is more important that more arbitrary questions of ‘size’.

There’s a lot more to consider here too, in particular the extent to which any of the things we consider under the umbrella of ‘surveillance’ are actually and actively part of some coordinated state (or other) plan. I’m starting to develop a sense of this here, but I will leave those thoughts to another post.

(Thank-you to Mayor Hirioshi Yamada, Professor Ogura Toshimaru and again, to Midori Ogasawara for being so generous with their valuable time).

At the IT Strategic Headquarters

Yesterday we visited the Prime Minister’s IT Senryaku Honbu (IT Strategic Headquarters). (This has actually been the only national-level government agency that has agreed to speak to us, and some of the reasons for refusal have been rather telling, not least that of Houmusho (the Ministry of Justice), which claimed that they had nothing to do with privacy and so on, which betrays a level of ignorance about the effects of their own policies that is probably more the result of bureaucratic sectionalism and literalism than anything else but is nevertheless interesting!). The IT Strategic HQ is responsible for developing the ‘i-Japan’ strategy, the latest incarnation of what has at various times been called ‘Information Society Japan’ and ‘e-Japan’ policy. They are also the agency that wrote the most recent Japanese data protection laws, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

We were treated to a prepared presentation on the latest incarnation of the i-Japan strategy, in which the ‘i’ seems to stand for ‘inclusion’ and ‘innovation’ but not apparently for ‘interactive’, which one might expect from its use elsewhere in computing. However it was the brief interview we had afterwards that was more enlightening.

In short, the government has acknowledged that what they originally wanted out of juki-net has failed due to opposition, despite the supreme court victory that ruled that the current cut-down version was constitutional. However, as Kanshi-no! argued, they are not going to back down that easily. The movement towards the creation of centralised government databases will continue, and there most likely will eventually be a fully configured identification system (and card) and rather alarmingly, the new i-Japan strategy makes it quite clear that laws that currently prevent this from happening will simply be changed or removed. They do not want opposition groups, nor indeed the current global recession, to be able to hold up or change these plans.

However the main thrust of development of centralised databases has shifted away from juki-net and the jyuminhyo (residents’ registration) system, towards national insurance, health and pensions. This is, as the agency than runs juki-net, Lasdec, suggested to us – and I am now beginning to think that this suggestion was rather more of a loaded hint than I had first thought – by far the most data-rich area of government records and therefore in many ways more suitable for being the basis of an architecture of central registration and identification. The database that the government intends to create in this area will also have the possibility for citizens to add in (voluntarily, they say), information from private sources, such as bank account and other financial details. Of course this could be more ‘convenient’ in terms of benefits and taxes, but it also puts an enormous amount of previously private data in the government’s hands and presents a huge temptation to identity fraud and theft from both outside and, more importantly inside the state bureaucracy (and let’s not forget, most identity fraud is an inside job).

It gets more worrying still as despite the advanced stage of these plans, the government has apparently still not decided exactly who will have access to this database, and the police in particular, as well as private insurance companies, are still considered as potential users. It seems that although the IT Strategic HQ might have developed data protection in Japan but they do not appear to understand its principles of necessity, proportionality and consent – indeed I asked them about these principles and they really had no serious reply. Instead they claimed that people in Japan wanted to have these central databases because the current fragmented system had led to poor security and data losses, and in any case, ageing society and the pensions crisis meant this had to be done. I have noticed that in Japan, ‘ageing society’ like ‘terrorism’ in the UK, seems to have become the spectre evoked to silence potential criticism.

There are many other issues too: the government is also trying to introduce a voluntary system of Electronic Health Records (EHR), but this is not as developed as the Connecting for Health centralised database that is still experiencing significant problems in its introduction in the UK; and there are some rather less controversial social inclusion measures included the provision of computers for schools and so on. However my overall impression after leaving the IT Strategic HQ was of a government that was determined to press ahead with centralised collection and control of personal information regardless of the views of citizens or of whether it is really necessary even to achieve the policy aims they have. And this won’t change as the result of a change in government either. If, as seems likely, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP or Jyuminshuto) are voted out, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ or Minshuto) which will succeed them, has already said that it will create a central database.

(Thank-you to the officials of the IT Strategic Headquarters for their time).