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Editorial: Japan govt's 20,000-yen handout misses the point on slow 'My Number' ID uptake

The Japanese government is trying to boost the uptake of "My Number" personal ID number cards by offering up to 20,000 yen (about $177)-worth of points that can be used for shopping. The incentive is being aimed at people who will use the government-issued IDs as their new health insurance cards, and those on public allowances, who can register their benefit recipient bank account details on the cards.

    But people's worries about personal information protections run deep. With those worries as yet unresolved, we are left to wonder about the method -- and the 1.8 trillion yen (some $15.9 billion) budgeted to finance it -- the government has chosen to get Japan's residents to adopt the My Number system.

    My Number ID cards were launched in 2016, but their adoption has been sluggish at best. Last year, the government started giving out 5,000 yen (about $44) in shopping points to people who got their card, and the number of cards issued rose by about 50 million, or some 40% of Japan's citizenry. The government is hoping the shopping points boost will get a My Number card into the hands of just about everyone in the country by the spring of 2023.

    Japan's tardy moves to digitize public services has been brought into sharp relief, not least by the chaos that surrounded last year's 100,000-yen (about $885) handout to Japan's residents to help offset the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. If wide adoption of My Number cards smoothed procedures at public offices, it would certainly make government services easier to use.

    But there are a large number of people in Japan who have not got their cards. According to a private survey, many of those hesitant to get their My Number are worried about personal information leaks. After all, the system deals with private medical and financial details -- some of the most fundamental forms of personal information.

    The government has explained that detailed information like this is not recorded on the card's IC chip, so there is no threat of one's personal details leaking if the card is lost. But it will be difficult to allay people's fears as long as the government's personal information protection systems remain insufficient.

    The legal framework needs to be strengthened to impose strict personal information protections. But observers have noted that Japan has lax rules on the government providing people's information to outside parties without those people's consent. Meanwhile, the Digital Agency is prioritizing policies to put personal data held by the government to use in private enterprise to energize Japan's economy.

    The Personal Information Protection Commission (PPC), which is supposed to monitor these issues, is understaffed. Its writ only covers private businesses, but still it cannot keep up with the necessary checks, raising severe doubts it would be able to expand its mission to cover public agencies.

    The foundation of a digital society is the trust and understanding of its people. But no matter how many people the 20,000-yen in points giveaway tempts into getting their My Number IDs, without dealing with their personal data worries, we suspect the cards may not get used much more than they are now.

    The government is promising plans for a "people-friendly digitization that will leave no one behind." If that's the case, then first and foremost it must take sufficient steps to make sure everyone can use their My Number cards worry-free.

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