My Number system raises red flags in Japan ahead of notice release

(From Japan Today)

Despite being trumpeted as ushering in a more efficient, egalitarian society, the government’s controversial My Number system that starts with identification numbers being sent out to residents of Japan next week is raising serious qualms about invasion of privacy and leakage of personal information, Kyodo reports.

Actress Aya Ueto appears on a poster for the new My Number system

Actress Aya Ueto appears on a poster for the new My Number system

These are not the only concerns, however. Others relate to the heavy burden the project will put on businesses that will be tasked with collecting the identification numbers of employees and part-time workers—not to mention their family dependents.

Add to this the fuss about how exactly a tax rebate proposal under the system will work, fears about photo-ID cards being lost, and question marks over whether municipalities are capable of handling the expected number of applications.

On Monday, all residents of the country, Japanese and foreign, will begin receiving by mail randomly generated 12-digit numbers that ideally will not change throughout their lifetimes.

The government aims to have residents receive a provisional paper ID card by mid-October before the system comes into full effect in January 2016. The provisional cards can be exchanged for a photo-ID My Number with an embedded data chip, something that the government highly recommends.

Arguing the system will cut away red tape by improving the efficiency of administrative tasks, the government says it will enable the public sector to keep abreast of individual tax and social-welfare information linked to ID numbers.

The government says it will be able to ascertain people’s incomes more precisely, leaving little wiggle room for tax fraud or illicit receipt of social benefits. My Number will be required to file tax returns or receive social welfare benefits, including pensions and child allowances at municipal offices.

Not helping the case for introducing the My Number system was the revelation in May that Japan’s pension system had been hacked on an unprecedented scale. This has made the public deeply distrustful of the government’s handling of personal information and its ability to thwart cyberattacks.

For its part, the government argues that the risk of bulk information leaks is low because management of information will not be centralized but divided among agencies. Nevertheless, it will be cautioning people to exercise vigilance in protecting their My Number card and advising them not to entrust it to others.

The first hurdle the system faces is whether the initial My Number notices can be properly distributed in a timely fashion, and this will provide the litmus test for whether the system takes root.

An estimated 55 million households are in line to receive the numbers when they are dispatched from municipalities by registered mail.

Those who opt to exchange the paper ID card will obtain a free photo-ID My Number card that can be used from January 2016 in place of a driver’s license and other forms of identification.

My Number cards will likely function as health insurance cards from 2017 and the ID numbers can be linked on a voluntary basis to bank accounts from 2018. The government in its effort to improve tax collection aims to make the bank link mandatory from 2021.

“The personal number cards will be an indispensable part of daily life,” said Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi at the first meeting to promote the spread of the My Number card system, adding that the government was determined to accurately explain the merits of the system.

The sheer logistics for companies that will have to collect identification numbers of employees, part-timers and their dependants in order to submit withholding tax certificates and social welfare-related documents to tax agencies speaks to the enormity of a project many believe has serious flaws.

The Finance Ministry has proposed launching a tax refund program to alleviate some of the impact of the scheduled consumption tax hike from 8 percent to 10 percent in April 2017.

Under its plan, consumers would be required to swipe their My Number IDs at registers whenever they shop to claim the rebate from the 2-point hike for food and non-alcoholic drinks.

The government estimates more than 10 million My Number photo-ID cards will be issued in the first year. As this amounts to only about 10% of Japan’s population, however, there is a risk that some people will be unable to receive their tax rebates when the consumption hike goes into effect.

My Number cards, which will not only contain tax and pension information but the names, birthdates and addresses of their users, are more likely to be lost when people carry them around for shopping, critics argue.

A debate is likely on how to treat elderly My Number users, who might find it difficult to go outside, while the issue of how children are to use the cards is another matter to consider.

Many Japanese citizens believe the My Number system sets a bad precedent, bringing the surveillance state a step closer.

As use of the My Number system becomes more prevalent among private companies, the risk that personal information will be leaked will only increase, many argue. It appears that many citizens are also uncomfortable with the idea of the government having access to their shopping history.

It is also unclear whether all the terminals necessary to scan My Number information will have been installed in retailers in time for the start of the system.

Moreover, who is to pay for the machines’ installation has yet to be decided, and were the costs to fall on small businesses, they would likely impose a heavy burden. It also seems likely that the cards will be difficult to use at food vendors or for services such as take-out delivery.

That said, the system is not without its merits.

For example, from July 2017, people will no longer be required to submit certificates of earnings when applying for child allowances, nor will they need to attach their certificate of residence when applying for pensions.

Receiving natural-disaster relief will also become smoother, because with My Number identities can easily be confirmed.

But enthusiasm for the system remains lukewarm. According to a Cabinet Office survey conducted between July and August, just 24% of about 1,700 respondents said that they hoped to obtain a photo-ID My Number card, while 26% said they do not desire one.

And one more word of caution: The Cabinet Office and Consumer Affairs Agency are urging people to beware of swindlers who might take advantage of the introduction of the My Number system to illicitly obtain personal information such as bank account numbers over the phone, by visiting homes, or through email.

For the procedure of My Number ID notices, government agencies will never ask for bank account numbers or the state of your assets. The notices will all come by registered mail, so people should be beware of any “My Number” packages coming by ordinary mail or deliverers requesting payment for parcels.

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