​Protecting information is the key to national security

The Cabinet approved legislation that creates a new security clearance system for the handling of confidential information related to economic security.

Parliament should pass the bill. The move is long overdue and will facilitate Japanese cooperation in multilateral projects previously off-limits that are essential to the country’s future.

Japan first moved to protect official secrets in December 2013 when the Diet passed the Act on the Protection of Specially Designated Secrets; it took effect the following year. The law punishes individuals who leak “specially designated secrets,” or information that could do severe damage to national security if it was possessed by an enemy or adversary. The legislation identified four areas to which such secrets would apply: defense, diplomacy, counterintelligence and prevention of terrorist activities.

That bill filled an important hole in Japan’s national security landscape. Secrecy is an integral part of national security, even in a democracy, which depends upon and demands an informed electorate. If those vital secrets cannot be protected, then the country itself is not safe.

In recent years, however, that landscape has shifted and new fields are now considered essential to a country’s security and prosperity. There is a greater overlap between the civilian and military sectors; this “dual-use” problem is growing exponentially.

Especially important to this outlook are economic-security concerns, particularly in regard to new and emerging technologies. The ability to do research and develop the resulting innovations is key to future prosperity. That information falls outside the four domains designated by the 2013 legislation, however.

In fact, Japan is the only member of the Group of Seven leading industrial economies that does not have a security clearance system that applies to sensitive economic information that involves the private sector. That omission has not only meant that Japanese information in these areas is susceptible to leakage to or theft by foreign actors, but it has imperiled the ability of Japanese companies to engage in international projects because foreign partners fear that their secrets may be lost as well.

The bill approved by the Cabinet this week is intended to fix that problem. The legislation has two purposes. First, it creates a new category of secrets for economic-security information that could harm national interests if leaked. This will likely include information related to supply chains such as those for critical infrastructure, semiconductors, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.

The information is subject to the new bill whether it is generated by Japanese entities, foreign governments or by international organizations. Its purview is restricted to sensitive materials, however. Information designated as classified will remain so for five years, with an option to renew this status every five years for up to 30 years.

Leaking those secrets will be punishable by as much as five years in prison, a fine of up to ¥5 million ($33,220) or both. In contrast, violation of the Designated Secrets Act can result in a 10-year prison term.

Second, the new bill will set up a security clearance system that certifies individuals — both government and from the private sector — as being cleared to handle those secrets. The Cabinet Secretariat estimates that 90% of the individuals with clearances are public-sector employees. That makes sense in a world in which the government and private sector share little sensitive information, which is no longer the case.

Individuals will be screened by a process that looks at their personal histories, including checks for criminal records, family ties and previous issues with handling sensitive information. Those who pass will be cleared for 10 years. Individuals who already have a clearance under the Designated Secrets Act will not need a new one.

An effective security clearance system will take time to set up and it will be expensive. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people will have to be investigated, which will take substantial manpower. Conducting the checks themselves requires a particular skill set, and the need to ensure that rights are not infringed means that those investigators have to be trained and held to high standards.

Different countries have different means of providing background checks — some are done by the government, some by the private sector. Japan must devise a system that works best for it.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of information security in the digital era. The Japanese government is right to move forward with this vital new legislation.