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Japanese internet cafe surveillance.

I am right now in the “Yahoo Cafe” airside in Terminal 2 at Tokyo Narita international airport, in transit on my way from London to Sydney. This internet cafe is absolutely free, and I have been using it for 45 minutes or so and nobody has asked me to stop. (There is a sign up saying that the cafe is there to advertise Yahoo and Toshiba – the computers are Toshiba laptops). This is great, partly because I always enjoy getting things for free without having to pay for them, and secondly because I do not have any Japanese money, and there are no cash machines airside. (Given the lack of enthusiasm that the Japanese have for credit cards, getting a beer is going to be harder).

However, there is a sign up outside the cafe stating that people who wish to use the cafe must provide their passports (or some equivalent form of ID) to be scanned or copied, so that use can be monitored. It is stated that “This request is in compliance with various Japanese laws”. As to whether this means that the laws require this, or whether they merely allow this, I do not know. It also says that people who do not wish to have their use monitored in this way should not use the cafe. (I will take a picture of the sign, and I will post it when I am in Australia. I could try to do it now, but the machine has no free USB ports. For reasons I will get to).

When I asked to use one of the computers, I handed over my (machine readable) passport, and my passport was actually scanned by a machine, which presumably read my passport number and other details electronically. I was then given an electronic key device, which I was required to plug into the USB port of the computer I want to use. Therefore, my internet use is being connected with my passport number.

I do not know if the “government regulations” require lead to things like happening at all internet cafes in Japan, or just those at the airport. However, I cannot imagine that this sort of system is very hard to subvert with the internet in present form. I am sure that actual criminals have no trouble using the internet anonymously, and that it is only normally law abiding people like me who get their use monitored. (I am almost tempted to go to a porn site to see if I am instantly thrown in a Japanese prison, but I rather doubt that would happen. For one thing, this is the land where people quite openly read pornographic comic books on the subway. They are rather more relaxed about this kind of thing than the Americans).

However, there are lots of proposals in place (justified in a lot of cases by fears of copyright violation) to build computer hardware in such a way that monitoring of this kind is ubiquitous and automatic for everyone everywhere.

However, it’s interesting and a little troubling to see that one government of a democratic and in some ways quite liberal country is trying to do it now.

Update: It is perhaps less sinister than that. I went to the bar for a little while, and I came back to the internet cafe. I was recognised and handed another USB key thingy without checking my ID again. As I doubt they remembered my name, it seems they are not matching internet use to actual people, but are merely checking ID. They could switch to matching very easily and without anyone noticing, of course.

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4 comments to Japanese internet cafe surveillance.

  • Andy Wood

    Did you have to go through passport control?

    I passed through Narita – and the Yahoo cafe – just over a year ago, on my way between London and Sydney. On the way back, I had a stopover in the airport hotel and I was planning to go into Tokyo for the evening. However, my plan was ruined by a two hour wait just to have my passport checked, which left me fuming.

    There was a notice up saying there were checking for terrorists, but I couldn’t see how that justified leaving most of the booths unstaffed.

    Be warned.

  • The Japanese don’t strike me as ever having been remotely liberal or democratic. They love controlling people, especially foreigners, and have long demanded fingerprints from anyone staying for longer than a couple of weeks. They have had one sensationally corrupt party in power for decades, and bother with that level of pretence because they were militarily defeated and occupied by the Americans.

  • Andy

    This is very bizzare. I was in Narita a couple of weeks ago and just pass the ticket counters (for United in terminal 1), there were several internet terminals available for use; sure, they charged Y100 for 10 min, but there was no monitoring. As long as you had some coins, you were good to go.

    I also find it odd that there was no place to change money airside in T2; in T1, a few meters away from the internet terminals were a postoffice (that had a post office ATM that seemed to take every ATM card in the known universe) and a money changer.

  • Abhi

    update their brain