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Japan's police gain right to tap phones and e-mail
TOKYO (IDG) -- Japan's police have gained the right to eavesdrop on telephone calls and fax messages and access e-mail accounts in the course of their investigations into serious crimes. These are defined by the law as crimes involving illegal drugs, 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. In the United States, the FBI is defending its Carnivore e-mail-sniffing program while making sure it retains the ability to snoop on data crossing the backbone of Verio after the company is acquired by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone.
In the U.K., a law similar to Japan's has just passed through Parliament. It allows British authorities 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 that 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 its legislature in early August 1999, ahead of a summer recess. In their efforts to block the bill, the opposition drew upon all of its resources, 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 has run all night since 1992.
Opposition to the law continues today, mainly from privacy advocates and those in the telecommunications industry who are either against the law on privacy concerns or who resent the burden it could put on their companies. The law requests that 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, signaled 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 the person has no knowledge of or experience with the telecommunications equipment being used. Most other Japanese telecommunications companies have pledged to cooperate with police.
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