Japan's Police Gain Right to Tap Phone, E-Mail

TOKYO (07/14/2000) - Japan's police gained at midnight Tuesday the right to eavesdrop on telephone calls and fax messages and access e-mail accounts in the course of their investigations into serious crimes -- defined by the law as those concerning illegal drugs, cases involving weapons, organized group illegal entry into Japan, and organized murders.

The new Communications Interception Law came into effect just over a year after Japan's coalition government forced an all-night debate to push wiretap legislation onto the books.

The new law comes into force as similar legislation and government programs are making headlines in other nations. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently defending its Carnivore e-mail sniffing program while making sure it retains the ability to snoop on data crossing the backbone of Verio Inc. after the company is acquired by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. (NTT).

In the U.K., law similar to Japan's has just passed through parliament. It gives British authorities the ability to eavesdrop on e-mail and other Internet communications.

The most vocal opponents of the Japanese bill were not members of the public but telecommunications industry workers and opposition politicians. Despite opinion polls that showed most people did not support the bill and many thought clauses to prevent abuses of the law would be ineffective, the Japanese public seemed largely unconcerned by the legislation. With the memory still fresh in their minds of the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subway by the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, many viewed the law as a necessity.

In the face of this low public confidence, the ruling coalition government managed to railroad the bill through parliament in early August 1999 ahead of a looming summer recess. In their efforts to block the bill the opposition pulled out all the weapons in its arsenal, from no-confidence votes and overlong speeches to dragging out voting for over an hour (it usually takes about five minutes) but it was all in vain. The law finally passed after an 18-hour debate that began at 8 p.m. and finished at 2 p.m. the next day -- the first time a debate had run all night since 1992.

Opposition to the law continues today, mainly from privacy advocates and those in the telecommunications industry that are either against the law on privacy concerns or resent the burden it could put on their companies. The law requests a representative from the telecommunications operator or Internet service provider be present all the time during the wiretap. The monitor cannot hear or read the communications being intercepted and cannot stop the wiretap if the law is broken but is required to submit a report to the court.

"When we consider the privacy of clients, we have to oppose this law," said Mamori Nogata, a labor union leader at state-run NTT and an employee of group company NTT-ME, speaking at a Tokyo forum in late July. "We have an obligation to protect privacy."

"This law is going against Act 21 of the constitution. It also violates the telecommunications law that the contents of a call should be known to a third party," he added.

Japan's largest mobile telecommunications carrier, NTT DoCoMo Inc., signalled its opposition to the law Monday when, according to the Kyodo News Service, it made a decision not to send monitors to watch over police. In this case, the local authority in the area concerned must supply someone to monitor the wiretapping, even if they have no knowledge or experience of the telecommunications equipment being used. Most other Japanese telecommunications companies have pledged to cooperate with police.

Despite the recent passage into law of wiretapping, the technique already has a history in Japan.

It was in 1986 that most first learned of wiretapping after the home of Yasuo Ogata, a prominent Japan Communist Party politician, was found to be wiretapped. The Tokyo High Court ruled in 1997 that police were responsible for the wiretap despite the tactic being illegal at the time. The police continue to deny any involvement in the case, although they did not appeal the ruling.

The technique came into question again as the wiretapping bill was running through its final days in parliament. A transcript of a cellular telephone conversation between a television journalist and a Japanese politician was sent to several media organizations -- along with a claim by the anonymous sender that it was obtained in the course of a police wiretap. Evidence supporting the claim was never uncovered.

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