Monday, January 21, 2013

Nationwide Shared Address Book App Provoking a Controversy in Japan

The hottest issue of information technology in Japan is the "Nationwide Shared Address Book App" or "Zenkoku Kyoyu Denwa Cho."  This is an android app which by installing you share your address book in your smartphone with all the other users of the app.  The result is that even though you don't want your personal information like name, address, and phone number to be disclosed, your personal information will be compromised, once one of your friends installs this app!  It is said that together with the data already held by the App producer, more than 28,000,000 individuals' personal data have been compromised.

The launcher of the App is called Tottori Loop, a Japanese group in Tottori prefecture (South West of Honshu) protesting the Dowa policy of Japan. The Dowa policy is favorable treatment of the descendants of those who used to be discriminated against.  Already in around 2012, the group ran a site called "Jusho de Pon!," or "Enter the Address and Telephone Number Pops Up!" As the name shows, this is a database site where personal information like the name or the telephone number is searchable by entering the address. The intention of the group is not clear.  As most of these people treated favorably live in a certain area called the "Dowa Area" or "Dowa Chiku," one possible intention is that they want to let people know the information of those who currently live in the Dowa Area.  The group seems to be using the data in published phone books from around 2007, before everyone started being concerned about privacy and is now trying to obtain the newest data by letting users share their own address book information.

Japanese privacy experts are opposed to the group, saying it may violate privacy rights of individuals.  But there is one issue that makes the situation complicated.  All the users of the app agreed to the terms of service and privacy policy of the app when they installed this app.  The famous discussion on twitter between HiromitsuTakagi, a researcher at GTRC, National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, and the group members revealed that the group's position is that it has not breached any existing laws and regulations because the users agreed on terms of service and "voluntarily" disclosed the data.

However, it seems to me that the group is misleading the argument.  Let's say Amy's address is in Bill's address book.  When Amy gave Bill her address, in most cases, she did not consent to sharing her address to anyone (other than Bill). By then installing the app, Bill might have consented to share Amy's personal information.  But, of course, Bill cannot lawfully consent to share Amy's personal information because the owner of Amy's information is Amy, not Bill.  So, I do not think that the argument by Tottori Loop is persuasive.  In addition, as most of users do not read the terms of service, there is another argument of whether the users really consented.

Whether the apps will be removed from Google Play is not clear.  But it can be an "unauthorized publishing or disclosure of people's private and confidential information" in violation of the policies.

DISCLAIMER: "IT Law issues in Japan" only provides general information about Japanese information technology law and does not, under any circumstances, constitute legal advice. You should first obtain the advice of professional legal counsel who is qualified in Japan before acting or refraining from acting based on this blog.

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