Japan Govt Panel Formulating Clearance System for Economic-security Secrets

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and economic security minister Sanae Takaichi

The government is moving ahead with discussions on the introduction of a clearance system for authorizing access to sensitive information related to the nation’s economic security.

This aim is to create a system that will reinforce the nation’s information security framework and create an environment that makes it easier for Japanese companies and other entities to participate in joint research and business projects overseas.

“Strengthening information security is vital for smooth cooperation with our allies and like-minded countries,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Under the clearance system, information vital to Japan’s economic security would be designated by the government, and background checks would be required for government officials and individuals in the private sector before access to the information is granted.

The Law on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets, which came into force in 2014, covers secrets related to defense, diplomacy, counterespionage and counterterrorism.

Government officials account for the majority of people with clearance to access such information. As of 2021, 134,297 people had been cleared to handle such information, of whom 3,444 — less than 3% — were private citizens.

Amid concerns that people involved in cutting-edge technology and infrastructure projects that do not fall under the four areas covered by the secrets law could leak security information to China and other nations, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ordered the establishment of an expert panel to work on an economic security-related clearance system.

Economic security minister Sanae Takaichi has indicated that a clearance system separate from the one for designated secrets is being considered.

“It’s difficult to conceive technologies in fields such as telecommunications and space falling under the category of specially designated secrets,” Takaichi said.

The most likely path will involve revising the economic security promotion law enacted in May 2022 to enable the government to safeguard sensitive economic-related information handled by government departments such as the Finance Ministry and the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry.

The government is also considering providing clearance for private citizens involved in critical infrastructure projects and compiling guidelines for companies to screen employees in advance.

However, challenges abound in getting the clearance system up and running.

Clearance under the specially designated secrets law involves checks on possible espionage activities, criminal and disciplinary records, and financial status, among other things. The nationality of an applicant’s spouse is also checked. The new economic security clearance system will likely involve similar background checks.

The expert panel working on the system is headed by Toshiya Watanabe, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute for Future Initiatives. At the panel’s first meeting on Feb. 22, one member said, “Consideration must be given to people’s privacy.”

The United States classifies sensitive information in a three-tier system — top secret, secret and confidential. The information covered by Japan’s secrets law is said to be at the U.S. level of secret or top secret. Separate classification levels will be required for Japan’s new clearance system.

As of October 2019, about 4.24 million people in the United States had security clearance. In principle, screening is conducted by about 3,300 people in a dedicated organization within the U.S. Defense Department.

In Japan, security clearance checks are currently done by administrative bodies such as the Defense Ministry. “If the number of individuals being screened for security clearance increases, the screening system will need to be expanded,” a senior government official told The Yomiuri Shimbun.