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Japan to weigh limits on surveillance tech exports with U.S., EU

  • December 24, 2021
  • , Nikkei Asia , 4:59 a.m.
  • English Press

TOMOHIRO EBUCHI, Nikkei staff writer


TOKYO — Japan will consider partnering with the U.S. and Europe to restrict exports of advanced surveillance technology that enables authoritarian states to violate human rights on a wide scale, Nikkei has learned.


The U.S. has announced multilateral initiatives aimed at tightening controls on facial-recognition systems and similar equipment to prevent abuses by countries such as China and Russia. Tokyo has moved more slowly, in part because of its lack of a clear legal basis for sanctions.


How governments lay out these rules will affect Japanese companies such as NEC that have developed powerful identification tools.


Japan regulates exports of weapons and commercial products with potential military applications that “compromise world peace and international security” under its foreign exchange law, requiring approval by the trade minister.


Some argue the language of the law can be interpreted to cover human rights. But further discussion is needed to determine whether technologies that contribute to rights violations can be restricted in this way.


Tokyo will hold talks with American and European partners to consider what products and technologies pose a threat. Products such as circuit boards are already subject to export restrictions as they could be diverted to military use.


Beijing has been accused of using facial recognition and other video surveillance technology — an area of strength for Japanese companies — to control the Uyghur Muslim population in China’s Xinjiang region.


NEC has led international facial-recognition accuracy rankings on multiple occasions. It has sold more than 1,000 biometric identification systems, including facial, fingerprint and iris scanning, across 70 markets.


“We supply these technologies responsibly, looking at how they are used,” CEO Takayuki Morita said.


Other technologies with the potential for abuse include location tracking systems, wiretapping equipment and smartphone software that collects personal information.


The U.S. and the European Union have enacted export controls tied to human rights. EU restrictions that took effect in September require such transactions to be examined on a case-by-case basis, without singling out any particular destinations.


“We’ll look at the EU approach and others as references as we consider” how to proceed, said Koichi Hagiuda, Japan’s minister for economy, trade and industry.


The U.S. has targeted China specifically with sanctions, citing surveillance of the Uyghurs as one factor. But taking this tack could disrupt Tokyo’s less aggressive approach to dealing with Beijing, and there are concerns about retaliation as well.


After the democracy summit hosted by Washington this month, the U.S., Australia, Denmark and Norway announced the Export Controls and Human Rights Initiative, an effort to “use export control tools to prevent the proliferation of software and other technologies used to enable serious human rights abuses.”


Canada, France, the Netherlands and the U.K. have expressed support for the plan. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said Tokyo will “consider how to respond based on future discussion.”


Existing tech-related frameworks could come into play, such as the U.S.-Japan Commercial and Industrial Partnership and the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council. The U.S., Japan and the EU hold trilateral meetings of top trade officials.


In an October statement on eradicating forced labor from supply chains, Group of Seven trade ministers said that “trade policy can be one of the important tools in a comprehensive approach.”

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