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Japan gov't, many local bodies halt use of Line app following data breach

Line Corp. President Takeshi Idezawa bows in apology following the revelation that personal data of Line users was accessible to a Chinese affiliate firm, at the outset of a press conference in Tokyo's Minato Ward on March 23, 2021. (Mainichi/Tatsuo Tamaki)

TOKYO -- After revelations that personal data of users of the free messaging app Line was accessible to a Chinese affiliate firm sent shockwaves across Japan, the national government and an increasing number of local bodies are halting their usage of the popular app, which has grown to be a de-facto social infrastructure in the country.

    In a bid to eliminate risks posed by China over information management, Line Corp. has completely blocked access from China. The firm was also forced to make a policy turnaround to relocate image and other data stored in South Korea to Japan.

    At a press conference on March 23, Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare Norihisa Tamura said, "We have been using Line for sending out information about suicide prevention measures, as well as for monitoring the health of people entering Japan from overseas, among other purposes. We will stop using Line as long as there are no problems with alternative measures." He revealed that the government has already switched to email for some of its services.

    After Line's data breach came to light on March 17, the issue has caused wide repercussions throughout the government. Minister of State for Disaster Management Hachiro Okonogi said on March 23 that the Cabinet Office's official Line account for providing disaster prevention information would be "suspended until concerns over information management have been dispelled."

    Numerous local governments are also suspending their use of Line. The Osaka Prefectural Government issued a notice instructing its departments to stop using Line in projects dealing with personal information. In response, consultation services via Line for elementary, junior high and senior high school students offered every Monday were suddenly halted on March 22. The move came as the content of consultations is related to bullying and other trouble at schools and involves personal information. "As special caution is needed at the beginning of the academic year when the environment (for children) changes, we'd like to continue offering consultations via the phone and email, among other means," said an official in charge of the service.

    Behind Line's rapid growth as a social infrastructure in Japan lies its trailblazing role as a free communications app, attracting a tremendous number of users and enjoying an overwhelming share of the market.

    After Line launched its services in 2011, user numbers continued to grow in tandem with the widespread use of smartphones, to reach some 86 million people in Japan today. For Line and other social media platforms, the greater the number of users, the more ad and other revenues they can earn.

    Because of Line's wild popularity and convenience, many local governments and companies find it hard to turn away from the app as they make its use a premise of their business and projects.

    The city of Yamagata in northern Japan intends to use Line for coronavirus vaccination reservations as scheduled. Residents who received vaccination vouchers will enter necessary information on Line's special screen to be identified, and if verified, they can choose the date and location of their preference for inoculations. While the city also accepts reservations via the phone and its website, it adopted Line because "it is widely used by people from the younger through elderly generations," according to a municipal official.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has been using Line to monitor the health of people who were infected with the coronavirus and are recuperating at home. Despite Line's data breach issue, the metro government intends to continue to employ the app. If individuals subject to the monitoring service request to be contacted by phone, they will do so, but so far the metro government has received no such requests, according to officials.

    Both the Yamagata Municipal Government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government have concluded that there is no problem with the continued usage of Line, as they found out that the information they collected has been stored apart from the server in question after confirming the methods for personal information management.

    Yamato Transport Co. has been using Line since 2016 to accept customers' requests for changing the delivery date and for other services. The company says it will keep using the app while making sure clients' personal information is thoroughly protected.

    "As so many people are using Line, our use of the app contributes to enhancing customer convenience," commented a public relations official of the transport giant.

    Japan Post Co., another delivery heavyweight, will also continue to use Line for the time being, but officials said the company will make a decision after closely watching the development of the issue in the future.

    (Japanese original by Tatsuya Michinaga, Tsuyoshi Goto and Yusuke Matsukura, Business News Department)

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