Welcome to Japan

December 28, 2008 at 11:52 pm 6 comments

On November 20 2007, Japan passed a law requiring all non-Japanese citizens over 16 years of age to be fingerprinted and photographed when entering Japan. The law also encompassed foreign nationals living in Japan.

I blogged about this at the time and questioned whether the Japanese had the wrong targets – the biometrics programme was supposedly being introduced to counter “the war on terror”. So the argument seemed to be foreigners equal terrorists, so let’s round ’em up, fingerprint and photograph them. Japanese authorities seemed to conveniently forget that domestic, not foreign, terrorism is their problem (Sarin gas attack in Tokyo subway as an example). So dudes: if you really want to smoke out terrorists, fingerprint everyone, including Japanese citizens. But I reckon your country is pretty low on Al Qaeda’s list of who or what to blow up.

Criticism at the time even suggested that Japan’s new biometric system had more to do with xenophobia and racism. Of course, the real reason is that biometrics is BIG business since 9/11. The biometrics industry is predicted to be worth more than US $7 billion a year by 2012. This is why we will all be subjected in the future to being fingerprinted and photographed to death.

However, when it comes to Google StreetView, the Japanese seem to mind very much if THEY are the targets of surveillance. Forget the poor foreigners lining up in immigration to get fingerprinted and snapped! You know what I think of StreetView. If you don’t, go here and here. StreetView hit Japan in August 2008 with the insidious Google vans cruising up and down the streets of twelve Japanese cities.

But a bunch of Japanese academics, journalists and lawyers have sent a petition to Google’s Japanese subsidiary demanding that StreetView be canned because….it’s an invasion of privacy. Yeah, could have told them that. The petition in part said that the Google service “constitutes violent infringement on citizens’ privacy by photographing residential areas, including community roads, and publishing their images without the consent of communities and citizens” and that StreetView is distributing private information “more easily, widely, massively and permanently than ordinary cameras and surveillance cameras do”. Mmmmmm…..seems though they might be more sensitive about Japanese “love hotels” being captured by StreetView and showing couples walking in or out.

Well dudes, have a think about this – whilst your complaining about violation of your privacy, what about foreigners who are subjected to biometrics?  Aside from the fact that I wonder if targeting a particular group (ie non-Japanese citizens) could be legally challenged, think about the fact that fingerprints and photographs comprise unique digital records, which can be reproduced, stolen or shared with other Governments (eg the US) against the will or the knowledge of said poor foreign national. The legislation that passed into law Japan’s biometric programme specifically states that digital information collected  will be checked against international crime and terrorism databases, as well as domestic crime records and then stored for an unspecified time. So whilst Japanese citizens are fretting over distribution of private information and being caught on StreetView, foreigners have to worry about what information the Japanese will share about them with foreign governments.

Let’s not kid ourselves by naively thinking that our private information can’t or won’t be shared. Northwest airlines happily handed over passenger information to NASA, despite assuring passengers that the airline would not share confidential passenger data. JetBlue has admitted that it secretly gave  passenger records including names, addresses, phone numbers and flight information to a Defense Department contractor. I could give you many more examples.

Japanese citizens: welcome to the world of surveillance.


Entry filed under: Airport security, Google, Japan. Tags: .

Mirror, mirror The story a photo can tell

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. toranosuke  |  December 29, 2008 at 3:24 am

    I love Google Streetview, personally, as it allows me to revisit places I’ve been, places I used to live, in a way no collection of a few hundred or even a few thousand photos of here and there possibly could. It allows me to very accurately geotag my photos, and to gain and maintain an understanding of the geography of a given neighborhood.

    But getting to the point, the point of the value Japanese place on privacy, I am not at all surprised to hear that there have been petitions, and general widespread attitudes that this is an invasion of privacy. Despite the fundamental Japanese attitude of group identity rather than individual freedoms, their society is still very much organized around conceptions of in-group and out-group… and anyone who doesn’t know that neighborhood already is out-group.

    I’ve been trying to figure out the house number of my neighbors from last year (as I’m sure you’re aware, house numbers in Japan are not consecutive geographically. Though I was #17, my neighbors could be #2 or #30), and have discovered yet another aspect of this desire for privacy. I have found no way to search for their address. … You can call 104 to find out phone numbers, but you can’t search for house numbers online nor over the phone. … Maybe if I were in Japan and had a physical White Pages, but…

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  December 29, 2008 at 3:43 am

    Hi toranosuke, thx for your comment. You know, I can see the value of GoogleStreetView and Google Maps and so on. I am just concerned about privacy implications. So I am glad to see the Japanese get riled up about StreetView – I wish Australians would. But it’s a losing battle really when you consider our post 9/11 world of surveillance and increased biometrics. I do have a problem with the biometrics for foreigners just as I have an issue about the US doing similar.

    But when I read a recent report about the burgeoning biometrics industry and predictions for sales of biometric equipment to eg Government, I thought there is no way we will ever be able to opt out of this surveillance-saturated society. So unfortunately, Japanese citizens, private as they may wish to be, will be joining us all.

  • 3. Frank  |  December 29, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    Japan :-

    The Social networking websites and blogs are increasingly changing and developing the Presence of the young people into the society, and heve people travoling around the world taking photos of great places like Japan is 1 great exemplo, of people working for a better community!

    I hope for a better future!

  • 4. creativespark  |  December 30, 2008 at 2:34 am

    Hi Kim… the us/them attitudes reminded me of Zygmunt Bauman’s “Does Ethics Have a Change in a World of Consumers?” In these essays he argues that our readiness to throw away the objects that we buy extends also to our readiness to throw away, or get rid of, “strangers” too – migrant workers or immigrants or terrorist suspects, for example – whose humanity we do not recognise. “It seems all things, born or made, human or not, are until-further-notice and dispensable,” he writes.

    Australia might have a lot of quirks, but this capacity in human beings isn’t one of them. At least it wasn’t part of my upbringing. The guy who laid the tar on the roads, the woman who ran the laundromat, the team that collected your garbage… to some extent everyone is treated with respect and equality. There have been blips like Queensland Fish and Chip shop owners and some questionable immigration decisions, but public opinion seems to keep this culture of fairness alive.

    But in the past few years I’ve had an education of a different sort. I’ve been exposed to attitudes that are much closer to the ones you’re talking about. Mistreatment and abuse of workers, capital being valued over human rights. Not quite Milgram perhaps (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/29/opinion/29mon3.html?em), but an eye opener for me nevertheless. And yes, unfortunately often approaching Milgram… maids being tortured, manual labourers being held in inhumane conditions with no way to escape.

    Obviously being photographed and fingerprinted is not “abuse” in this way, but I think us/them divides are a slippery slope. When you view some people as having less rights than others, where do the lines get drawn?

    If there’s any good to come of all this surveillance and global connectivity at all, I hope it’s that abuse gets harder to hide, that bad things previously “private” become open to scrutiny, and that people turn out to be compassionate and powerful enough to put a stop to it.

    My wish for 2009.

    =) Marc

  • 5. creativespark  |  December 30, 2008 at 2:42 am

    Sorry… bad reference. Should have been “Does Ethics Have A Chance…”

  • 6. thinkingshift  |  December 30, 2008 at 6:02 am

    Hi Marc
    You know, there’s a real insight in your comments that I want to reflect on. I’ve been reading a blog that talks about the plight of Filipino maids in HK. Don’t know if you’re familiar with it it http://greetingsearthlings.wordpress.com/
    There was the awful case of the death of Vicky Flores. It’s been a real eye-opener for me.So this underbelly in Asia has been slowly revealing itself to me. When you live in Australia, as you say, your experience is quite different. The merchant banker is no different from the fitter and turner.
    Where I think your insight is – it’s around the comment of fingerprinting, identification making abuse harder to hide. I hadn’t thought of it from this angle. We concentrate on flushing out terrorists and criminals versus the need for privacy. But if biometrics could in some way reveal the underbelly, the abusers – but I’m not sure how.


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