Govt to devise criteria for releasing names of those missing in disasters

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Search and rescue operations after a fatal mudslide in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, in July 2021

The government will compile a unified set of criteria so that local governments can quickly release the names of people missing at the time of a disaster, government officials said.

The new standards will allow local governments to release in principle the names of people whose whereabouts are unknown during emergencies, with the aim of ensuring that search and rescue operations are carried out smoothly.

A expert panel will be convened to discuss the matter as early as late February, with a target of mapping out guidelines for the criteria within the next fiscal year.

The release of names of those missing in a disaster has been left up to local governments, which make their own judgment based on their ordinances on protecting personal information. As such, the actions taken have differed depending on the municipality.

There have even been cases in which local authorities would not release a name without first gaining consent from the victim’s family, and a search operation continued without anyone knowing the “missing person” had been in an evacuation facility the whole time.

Conversely, after a fatal mudslide in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, in July last year, both the prefectural and municipal governments released the names of all 64 persons regarded as missing just two days later. By the following day, the whereabouts of 44 were confirmed based on information from families or even the missing persons themselves, which allowed for search and rescue operations to be quickly narrowed down.

Noting this, the Cabinet Office in September sent a notice to prefectural governments requesting that they look into releasing names in the wake of disasters.

The task of coming up with a unified set of criteria will be entrusted to a panel consisting of experts in fields such as disaster response and personal information security, along with officials from the relevant government agencies and ministries.

A main issue of contention will be the scope of exclusion for such people as victims of domestic violence and stalking. Also, it needs to be determined what items of personal information besides the name, such as age, address and occupation, should be released. The necessity of family consent will also be discussed.

The panel will also look into the overall handling of personal information at the time of a disaster, such as whether positioning data from a smartphone can be used to determine routes for emergency vehicles.

Revisions to the Protection of Personal Information Law that were passed in May last year stipulate that the handling of personal information should centrally supervised by the nation’s Personal Information Protection Commission.

Each local government will revise its own ordinances based on the revised law, which will come into effect by next year, and the new guidelines.

“We want to come up with easy-to-understand criteria so that local governments can release names without hesitation in the wake of a disaster,” a Cabinet Office official said.