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Personal info on Japan's Line app accessible from China since August 2018

The Line app logo

TOKYO -- Users' personal information on the Japanese free messaging app Line has been accessible by an affiliate firm's engineers in China since August 2018, it was revealed on March 17.

    Line Corp. has submitted a report to the Japanese government's Personal Information Protection Commission for failing to explain the situation in its privacy policy, and will establish a third-party panel at an early date to improve operations.

    According to the firm's parent company Z Holdings Corp., Line commissioned an associated company in Shanghai to build artificial intelligence and other technologies for the app's services. During the development process, data stored on servers in Japan, including some users' names, phone numbers, email addresses and messages, were accessible to four Chinese staffers at the Shanghai firm.

    The four workers had accessed servers in Japan at least 32 times since August 2018 for operational necessities. Z Holdings explained that this "was conducted with the oversight of a person in charge in Japan. Thus far, no data has been tapped inappropriately." However, Line barred access by the Shanghai engineers on Feb. 24 this year after the situation was pointed out by a third party.

    In January 2020, the company also hired a Japanese firm to monitor inappropriate posts on Line's "TimeLine" and other services. This Japanese firm commissioned work from a separate company in Dalian, China, and staff there accessed posts and images stored on servers in Japan. Line intends to revise this arrangement as well.

    Japan's Act on the Protection of Personal Information stipulates that service providers need to obtain users' consent if they either relocate personal information to foreign countries or make such information accessible from abroad. While the government's Personal Information Protection Commission requires service providers in principle to stipulate information including the names of countries where data may be transferred, Line's privacy policy did not specify China. The policy states only, "We may transfer Personal Data to a third country without any data protection laws which are equivalent to those of the country or region where you live when we have obtained your consent or such transfer of Personal Data is permitted under Applicable Laws."

    The Line app was developed by the Japanese arm of South Korean IT giant Naver Corp., taking a cue from people hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 having trouble contacting each other. The service was launched in June that year. The app has 86 million monthly users in Japan, and is also used by local governments and businesses for information distribution and marketing.

    (Japanese original by Tatsuya Michinaga, Business News Department)

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