Japan takes a good, very long look at its options in China biometrics puzzle
Japan could join the United States and the European Union in restricting biometric surveillance technology to some autocratic governments, not the least of which are China and Russia.
In the final days of 2021, Nikkei Asia reported that Japanese politicians are considering a ban on some exports to nations using facial recognition and other biometric tools to violate broadly accepted human and civil rights such as privacy.
It is a tough call for Japan. Its electronics manufacturing sector and, to a lesser degree, its software innovation remains world-class. While it is unclear at the moment what percentage of its sales in dictatorial regimes end up in domestic-repression systems, it likely is not insignificant.
NEC is one of the largest suppliers of facial recognition to governments, and has sold more than a thousand biometric identification systems in some 70 markets.
At the moment, Nikkei Asia notes, the government is pointing to one of Japan’s existing export laws that bans export of weapons and commercial products to nations that might use them to “compromise world peace and international security.”
Does that include goods that can be used as political weapons against a nation’s own citizens? It would be hard to argue today that domestic politics cannot spill into regional or global affairs.
The United States and the European Union have come down on the side of global human rights, having created numerous gates to stop the flow of biometric technology to, particularly, China. They have not always been effective.
Beijing is, in fact, investing a lot of capital on biometric surveillance to make sure its perceived threat from native-born Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang cannot imperil China much less the region.
The United Nations human rights investigators said in 2018 that China had imprisoned 1 million Uyghurs in remote re-education camps. Many continue to be identified and located using facial recognition systems that blanket Xinjiang and the rest of China.
Russia would also be a problematic customer as it transitions to one-man control of the national government and considering its unilateral annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
But the focus really is on China, which outbuys Russia and every other nation when it comes to biometric surveillance.
And, as the Nikkei Asia article points out, Japan has been trying both to cultivate a better relationship with its gigantic and restless neighbor and to mollify Beijing’s geographic expansionist tendencies.
Politicians might say they are examining the meaning of their export laws, but the likely are just as avidly trying to thread this needle.
And they are not above telling the western economies where to get off.
Japan’s minister for economy, trade and industry is quoted saying he will “look at the EU approach [to exporting] and others….” Among the others who do not warrant mentioning is the United States, the nation’s closest ally for 80 years.
Given the chaotic government policies coming from the U.S. recently, Japan may have good reason to hedge its position.