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Japan gov't was to give personal data on students at 30 nat'l universities to private firms

House of Councillors lawmaker and Japanese Communist Party member Tomoko Tamura, right, is seen asking questions to Minister for Digital Transformation Takuya Hirai at a House of Councillors Cabinet Committee on April 20, 2021, at the National Diet in Tokyo. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology tried to hand an outside party records containing personal information on students at 30 national universities across the country who applied for exemptions from school fees in fiscal 2020, it emerged at an April 20 House of Councillors Cabinet Committee.

    During deliberations over the digital reform bill, including the establishment of a digital agency and revisions to the Act on the Protection of Personal Information, the government answered questions from House of Councillors lawmaker and Japanese Communist Party member Tomoko Tamura.

    According to the answers, files subject to the education ministry's actions included records on whether students at Osaka University and Hokkaido University had family members with disabilities, and whether their families receive public welfare, among other data. It appears the way personal information is handled is in question.

    Regarding private information retained by the central government, national institutions including ministries and agencies have been able from fiscal 2017 to release tables of such information to private firms, following screening of the companies' application proposals for making use of the data.

    According to fiscal 2020 documents from the Personal Information Protection Commission, Osaka University was shown to be one institution earmarked for the release of its "tuition fees exemption file." But the data included information on the individuals' family income, whether they are in a single-parent household, whether any of their family members have disabilities, and whether the family receives public welfare, among other private details.

    Hokkaido University, also, provided a document with almost the same fields listed, and the University of Tokyo also showed a file referred to as its "tuition fee exemption applicants file," which includes information on "fields related to disability, illness and radiation exposure."

    Apart from the tuition fee exemption files, other personal information subject to release to private firms includes Kyoto University and Kyushu University documents relating to health check results, as were library loan records at Utsunomiya University, information from job-searching consultations at Osaka University, and the University of Tokyo's results from the National Center Test for University admissions exams as well as its second round of attainment tests.

    Because the private firms seeking provision of the documents did not apply, the data was reportedly not actually handed over.

    Tamura pursued the issue at the House of Councillors Cabinet Committee, including saying, "Is it not an infringement of privacy to utilize students' information without it being known by the people affected?" In response, Minister for Digital Transformation Takuya Hirai said repeatedly in an attempt to gain understanding, "The documents are altered in a way that it's not possible to discern specific individuals and the data cannot be restored, meaning individuals' interests won't be infringed."

    But among the "special care-required personal information" in need of consideration for the Act on the Protection of Personal Information are people's race, creed, social position, medical history including physical disabilities, intellectual impairments and mental health issues, among others, and also the results of tests including regular health checks. There is a possibility that the information includes these forms of data.

    Hiroshi Miyake, a lawyer with expertise in personal data protection, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "It's extremely sensitive information, and there are questions over whether the universities worked to get agreement from the affected students themselves, or whether they fully considered students' privacy."

    He added, "Although they say it's fine if they process the data, universities themselves have limited information as targets (for providing data), and as digital technology improves, there is a danger that linking some information together will lead to individuals being identified."

    (Japanese original by Shinya Oba, Political News Department)

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