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METI Minister Seko dreams of a state-owned cybersecurity company

Springtime dreams are fleeting. It looks like this dream, though, will take quite some time to materialize.


With the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon in 2020, beefing up cybersecurity measures is a pressing issue for both the public and private sectors. Japan is a developing nation in this field, however. Secretly filtering up through the government is a plan to create a state-owned company that would simultaneously revitalize industry and fortify cybersecurity measures. Japan has precedent for this approach in the Meiji period.


Spearheading the initiative today are Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko and his entire ministry. To prepare the way, METI has started to put energy into cybersecurity measures in a government-wide fashion. Cooperation in cybersecurity was included in the agenda for the Japan-U.S. Economic Dialogue, which commenced in April. At the end of April, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom had talks where they agreed to intimate bilateral collaboration [in cybersecurity], and METI Minister Seko traveled to Israel in May and agreed to strengthen cooperation with that country as well.


Japan is eager to engage in cooperation with other countries because it lags behind in cybersecurity measures. The government has not focused on the issue until recently. The Basic Act on Cybersecurity was enacted in November 2014. The National Center of Incident Readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity (NISC) was set up in the Cabinet Secretariat in 2015 to spearhead the government’s cyber measures.


The private sector’s efforts cannot be considered adequate, either. Although individual companies have taken their own measures, inter-company and cross-industry collaboration has been weak. In addition, foreign-affiliated firms essentially have a monopoly on the cybersecurity products and services needed by the companies. Japanese corporations offer practically nothing.


To put an end to this pathetic situation in both the public and private sectors, Seko is talking about creating a state-owned cybersecurity company, and he reportedly is very determined. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the Meiji government set up Yahata Steel Works and other companies as state-owned entities and then privatized them once they had advanced their industries. Seko aims to do this again now in the 21st century.


METI is also intent on developing cyber professionals to spearhead the future of the industry. In April, METI established the “Industrial Cybersecurity Center” at its Information-Technology Promotion Agency (IPA). The Center offers a one-year training program in cybersecurity for select employees of leading companies in industries involved in Japan’s key infrastructure.


“The aim is not to develop IT specialists. The Center is an officers’ school for training cyber soldiers,” says a high-ranking METI official enthusiastically.


METI is also putting care into the selection of executives for the Center. Hitachi Chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi, who is the most rightwing candidate for the next chairman of Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), has taken the top position, and Toomas Ilves,  former president of cyber superpower Estonia, and Keith Alexander, former director of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), have been invited to be advisors.


METI is also trying to attract another heavyweight in the field: Michael Flynn, U.S. President Trump’s aide and former national security advisor. In October last year, right before the presidential election, top METI officials met with Flynn while he was in Japan and felt him out about becoming an advisor. The idea was dropped, though, when Donald Trump was elected president. METI is approaching Flynn again now that he has resigned as advisor.


At the ceremony to mark the launch of the Center, Seko likened the students to the pioneers who crossed the ocean aboard the Mayflower to reach the New World. “I would like you to go down in the history of cybersecurity in Japan!” he encouraged. Seko’s exuberance is evident, but will he be able to repeat the “outstanding achievement” of the Meiji government?


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