Japan struggles to balance privacy, big dara in COVID-19 response

The Yomiuri Shimbun

As various personal data, including information on physical characteristics, locations and favorites, is collected and used, calls to protect people’s privacy have also been growing, making it a challenge to strike a balance between the two.

Japan has once again been forced to confront this difficulty as it strives to deal with the novel coronavirus.

Hopes dashed

“As things stand, it’s meaningless,” sighed a senior official of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry who was briefed in mid-April last year about an app developed to help cope with the coronavirus. The official was disappointed because it had become clear that COCOA, a contact-confirming app for smartphones, would not function as the ministry had expected.

Within the ministry, officials had considered tracing the movements of people who had tested positive for COVID-19, thereby revealing whom they had been in contact with. But last April, Google LLC, and Apple Inc., which develop operating systems for smartphones, announced that their principles would not allow them to authorize the user location data to be used for a “contact tracing app.”

The ministry therefore had to abandon the idea.

Consequently, COCOA only allows users to be notified of their possible contact with a person who tested positive and was within 1 meter of them for 15 minutes or more. It changed from a so-called tracing app to a contact-confirming app.

“I felt strongly both companies’ intention not to be criticized over user privacy,” said Masanori Kusunoki, a special advisor to the government’s CIO, whose roles are chief intelligence/innovation/information officer, and who was involved in the app’s development. The CIO is the deputy chief cabinet secretary for information technology policy of the Cabinet Secretariat.

The app was launched last June, but a succession of problems followed. The number of downloads totaled about 27 million as of the end of April, far lower than the targeted 60% of Japan’s total population.

There was also a delay in linking the health ministry’s HER-SYS, an online system for the centralized management of infected patients’ data, with the network of all local governments. This was because many local governments had restricted the online transmission of such information with other entities, in keeping with their ordinances on protecting personal data.

Spurred by their experience with MERS, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, China and South Korea both pushed ahead with the use of contact-tracing apps in their battle against COVID-19 and achieved a certain level of success.

“Japan started far behind. There are sufficient grounds for discussing to what extent privacy should be protected when fighting the threat of an unknown virus,” said Shutoku Matsuyama, an official at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Medical data

The use of big data, gathered through digital devices and the like, has repeatedly clashed with the protection of personal data.

Big data has drawn attention in tandem with the spread of smartphones. The government decided to adopt “Japan’s Revitalization Strategy,” which includes the utilization of individuals’ data, at a Cabinet meeting in June 2013 and tried to promote it.

In the following month, however, East Japan Railway Co. was found to have provided a private company with passengers’ embarkation and disembarkation histories, recorded on IC train passes known as Suica, with no prior explanation to the users. This incident spurred concern and criticism among the public over the use of big data.

This trend changed with the revision of the Personal Information Protection Law in 2015. The new rules stipulated that collected data can be offered to third parties if it is anonymized to delete information that could reveal a person’s identity, thereby accelerating the use of big data.

The medical and nursing care fields now offer such services as health-related advice for elderly people and others based on the analysis of anonymized data such as blood pressure and body temperature. Data on “human traffic,” meant to ascertain the flow of people by analyzing location data from smartphones, is being used by local governments and other entities to combat COVID-19.

Future city realization

With the use of big data, even the realization of a future city is being considered.

“This is radical reform, which can change a crunch into a chance. Exemplifying this is the plan for a super-city,” then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasized last June, at a governmental panel of experts tasked to discuss regulatory reforms.

The super-city scheme is a central government program aimed at creating a city that utilizes cutting-edge technology. Related legislation was enacted in May last year, envisioning the use of such technologies as driverless vehicles, smartphone payments through facial recognition, the delivery of goods via drones, and telemedicine.

As to the location of the special zone where these technologies will be tested and demonstrated, 31 local governments and organizations, including the city of Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, have applied. About five organizations will ultimately be chosen.

However, there was a flurry of criticism during Diet deliberations on the legislation, due to concern over the possible infringement of privacy.

“As the use of personal data advances, the quality of life will improve,” said Prof. Kaori Ishii of Chuo University, a scholar on information law. “However, when we consider examples seen in China and elsewhere in which authorities have heightened surveillance on people through digital technology, concerns linger over the infringement of privacy. To not waste such data, like a treasure rotting away unused, it is indispensable to have broad discussions about what data can be permitted to be used and how, and to win public understanding for this.”