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Editorial: Measures needed to prevent overreaction to personal info protection

The government has released the drafts of ordinances and other regulations relevant to the revised Act on the Protection of Personal Information that fully comes into force next year. The Cabinet is expected to approve the drafts as early as October after the government's Personal Information Protection Commission solicits public comments on the matter.

    Since the current law came into force in 2005, a wide variety of data has been anonymized in various fields of society in the name of the personal information protection. Some cases were criticized as overreactions to the law.

    The amended law will establish a new category of information called "personal information regarding individuals who require special consideration." If the revised legislation comes into force, gathering and using information designated as such without permission from relevant individuals will be banned. Since the draft ordinance for the new data category leaves room for broad interpretation, some experts said designation could cause further overreactions.

    In-depth discussions should be held on how the free flow of information that supports democracy should be ensured while protecting personal information.

    The types of data that require special consideration to prevent discrimination or prejudice include; one's race, personal beliefs, history of criminal victimization, medical history, and criminal record, among others, according to concerned officials.

    Besides these, the draft ordinance states that mental and physical disabilities, the results of medical checkups, information on medical treatments and medication as well as one's arrest and search records will be included in this category of personal information.

    In recent years, police increasingly tend to withhold the names of crime victims and other personal data at their own discretion. However, society needs certain information to prevent a recurrence of crimes and to get to the bottom of incidents.

    As such, it is essential to scrutinize whether personal history of criminal victimization, for example, should be treated as information that requires consideration.

    The law does not apply to news organizations' acquisition of such personal data, including that which will be designated as information requiring consideration under the revised law, for the purpose of news reports. This is based on the idea that information is public property.

    Over the past decade, however, such an understanding has failed to take root in society.

    The law has been used by politicians, other public figures and companies involved in scandals as a pretext for withholding relevant information, and there have been cases in which information on the safety of individuals in disaster-hit areas cannot be obtained.

    It has been pointed out that the law prevented the speedy release of information regarding individuals who needed support and relief measures in areas hit by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, hindering rescue operations. Despite lessons learned from these problems, however, local bodies refused to disclose the names of 15 residents they could not contact in areas hit by a flood in Joso, Ibaraki Prefecture, in September 2015. As a result, the municipal and prefectural governments and other concerned organizations were unable to smoothly share information on these individuals, and search operations continued even after the residents' safety was confirmed.

    If excessive emphasis were to be placed on consideration for privacy, government and other organizations would be reluctant to release necessary information. It is necessary to reconfirm the spirit of the personal information protection law, which is aimed at achieving a balance between the use and protection of personal data, before the revised law comes into force.

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