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Editorial: Privacy concerns over personnel handling state secrets

A total of 97,560 public servants and civilians were subjected to "security clearance assessments," under which individuals are screened for the possibility of leaking classified information designated under the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets.

    Among the items reviewed by administrative organs under the clearance system are not only whether their employees are involved in espionage and terrorist activities but also their history of criminal activities, mental disorders, drug abuse, alcohol habits and financial debts. In addition to having their employees make entries in survey slips, government agencies are also allowed to interview employees and make inquiries to third parties. There have been strong privacy concerns over the scheme.

    An individual's history of mental ailments, in particular, could lead to groundless discrimination against them. The results of security clearance assessments should not be used in personnel evaluations and for purposes other than their original intent. We once again call for the proper operation of the evaluation system.

    More than 90 percent of those subjected to security clearance assessments -- or some 90,000 personnel -- were employees of the Defense Ministry and the Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency. Prior to the December 2014 enforcement of the controversial state secrets protection law, the number of employees who were allowed to handle defense secrets under a qualification system that was predecessor to the security clearance assessments stood at around 62,400. Although most of those defense secrets were re-designated as special secrets under that law, the number of employees subject to security clearance assessments has actually increased. This is because the Defense Ministry conducted assessments on employees who handle such secrets in emergencies even though they do not have access to secrets during peacetime, according to ministry officials.

    Leakers of special secrets can face up to 10 years in prison. Because of such harsh penalties, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Police Agency narrowed down employees who are subject to security clearance assessments for the handling of special secrets. The Defense Ministry's move comes in contrast to such careful measures.

    In the event of an armed attack on Japan, a large number of Self-Defense Force (SDF) personnel would be mobilized based on action plans, which apparently constitute special secrets. The Defense Ministry is unique in that employees at the frontline come in direct contact with special secrets. Nonetheless, the ministry should review whether the scope of security clearance assessments on its employees is limited to the minimum level necessary.

    The security clearance assessment indeed treads upon highly personal information. What's more, information on the relatives of public servants is also collected, while civilians who can come in contact with special secrets are scrutinized as well.

    Even though security clearance assessments are carried out upon consent from individual employees, such consent could be a mere formality within an organization. The government should never be allowed to unduly cut into individual privacy just because it has obtained the consent of individual employees and carry out excessive monitoring of handlers of special secrets.

    Little information has been released as to exactly who are subject to such aptitude evaluations, among other facts. In order for the government to dispel public concerns, it should at least disclose information on the storage conditions of materials it collected for such assessments.

    It's been almost a year since the secrecy law came into effect on Dec. 10, 2014. The role of oversight bodies aimed at preventing the government from arbitrarily designating information as special secrets is once again put to the test. In a first move of its kind, one such watchdog panel set up in the House of Councillors recently asked government agencies to disclose specific pieces of information designated as special secrets and examined their content. Those watchdogs are urged to conduct active screenings over special secrets and pass down information to the public.

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