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Concerns over privacy as Japan gov't asks tech firms for user data to combat coronavirus

The National Diet Building and its surrounding areas are seen in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, in this image taken from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

TOKYO -- The national government in Japan requested on March 31 that major mobile carriers and tech firms voluntarily hand over data pertaining to users' locations and search data as part of efforts to respond to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The move aims to build a better picture of people's movements by using big data, and lead to the early identification of potential cluster infections.

The companies approached include NTT Docomo Inc. and two other mobile giants, and Yahoo! Japan Corp. and Rakuten Inc., as well as U.S.-based IT giants Google, Apple, Facebook and (collectively known as GAFA).

The government expects to be able to use the statistical information compiled by the firms to work out which areas people often gather and to which early warnings can be sent, the relationship that a rise in the use of certain search terms may have with increased infections, and enable earlier preparation for some health care systems. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications' Telecommunications Bureau claims there is no issue around privacy because information would be anonymized by the companies providing it.

The bureau also stated, "It's difficult for the government to analyze the data just by receiving it as is. We would like the companies to forward proposals on how to use the data, and if those proposals are found to be useful, we intend to utilize them in our measures." But, the government's requests to the companies have no basis in law, and cannot be enforced.

Responding to a request for comment, Yahoo! Japan said, "Our first priority is the protection of our customers' privacy. We wish to proceed with our own investigation into whether there is a way for us to contribute to the prevention of the spread of the novel coronavirus with the use of big data."

Mobile carrier KDDI Corp. said, "We want to respond within the parameters set out by the Act on the Protection of Personal Information and other legislation." The company reportedly envisages providing the location data and other information it collects through its apps.

Communications firms in EU countries where citizens are currently under lockdown measures have already begun sharing their mobile phone location data with governments to confirm whether people are complying with the new rules. In Singapore, an app has been developed to record data when citizens come within a certain distance from one another. If an infection then occurs among them, those who came in close contact with them can be identified.

Tetsuya Sakashita, a managing director at JIPDEC and an expert on personal data protection, said, "I can understand the decision to turn to using data to reduce the spread of infections. If companies do comply with the government's requests, then they should work to publicly explain how they will anonymize the data and dispel people's concerns over privacy violations."

(Japanese original by Tsuyoshi Goto and Toshiki Miyazaki, Business News Department)

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