July 05, 2013, 7:32 AM — A privacy debate has erupted in Japan over a new service from a major rail operator that sells private e-ticket records as marketing data.
This week East Japan Railway (JR East), the country's largest rail company, has begun offering for sale the anonymized histories of millions of its passengers. The data is gleaned from its Suica train pass system, which is Japan's most popular with 43 million users, roughly equivalent to a third of the national population.
JR East and Hitachi, which will handle the technical aspects of the service, announced it last week via a terse news release that initially drew little attention. But this is the first time Suica information has been sold to third parties, and the news was soon highlighted by prominent bloggers, triggering a discussion that has now spread to Twitter and other online forums.
"Even if there is a proper way to use this (data), it must be done with the approval of society," wrote Hiromitsu Takagi, a professor and prominent commentator on data privacy, on his Twitter account.
Some were less reserved, with many calling the new service "revolting."
"Personally, rather than being revolted, I just don't have confidence in the ability of JR East and Hitachi to manage the data," wrote another commentator.
The Japanese debate is unfolding as the rest of the world reacts to revelations about surveillance programs of the U.S. National Security Agency. The tale of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who released details of the surveillance, has been closely followed by the media in Japan, where many are hesitant to publicize their private details online.
JR East's service provides details for passengers that use specific stations, such as their sex, the date and time they used the service, and the amount they spent. The company and Hitachi are adamant that no laws are being broken, and JR East says the Suica user contract gives it rights to the passenger data.
"There is no way to determine the identity of specific individuals from the data, so we feel there is no privacy issue," said Takashi Yamaguchi, a JR East spokesman.
Hitachi is marketing the service as an example of its prowess at handling "Big Data" a foreign buzzword for using powerful servers to crunch through large amounts of information that has recently caught on in Japan. The cheapest price for the service is ¥5 million (US$50,000), which provides passenger data on ten stations for a year. New data is added to the system monthly.
"This is statistical data," said Hisahiro Sakai, a spokesman for Hitachi. "We will aim to sell it to station tenants, or companies that are thinking of starting businesses in stations, as well as real estate companies and advertisers that want information about specific stations."