Japan Times et al: Four people snagged for fingerprints over 7 months. No longer an “anti-terrorism” measure. Of questionable effectiveness anyway.


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Hi Blog. Debito.org Reader AS makes the following poignant comment:

Hi Debito, You’ve probably seen this already, but just in case here is a link to a JT article on the “effectiveness” of fingerprinting at airports. http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20090630a4.html

Article excerpt:
The Japan Times Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Biometric ID system catches four

NARITA, Chiba Pref. (Kyodo) Immigration authorities have successfully detected four people since January trying to enter Japan illegally by trying to fool the biometric identity system…

The authentication system is designed to detect foreign nationals with a history of deportation from Japan based on fingerprint data…

The biometric identification system was introduced in November 2007 as part of antiterrorism measures under a revised Immigration Control Law.
Full article at

COMMENT FROM AS: Apparently the system has resulted in a grand total of four people getting caught in the last seven months. To me that seems like a massive waste of national resources, especially since there are other ways of detecting illegal re-entrants.

Also, the article drops the pretense that fingerprinting is an anti-terroism measure:

“The authentication system is designed to detect foreign nationals with a history of deportation from Japan based on fingerprint data.”

So now apparently the purpose of the system is cracking down on illegal entry and over-staying.ENDS

Another Debito.org Reader commented thusly on much the same subject:

Dear Debito-San,

Last Monday, June 29th, Kyodo released a press anouncement from the Immigration Bureau that shows that fingerprint evasion happens on a larger scale than previously assumed (see http://www.japantoday.com/category/crime/view/altered-fingerprints-detected-in-illegal-immigration-attempts).

According to a friend of mine, an article on page 29 of the Kobe Newspaper (evening edition) had additional information. Note that I could not confirm the contents personally. But I send you the highlights anyway, with added personal comments.

Apparently one of the Immigration Officers was quoted saying that the machines could not be trusted anymore as so many new ways to attempt to evade them show up.

Comment: If this statement was quoted correctly as an official statement, it took the Immigration Bureau long enough considering that the groundbreaking article from Yokohama National University (http://www.lfca.net/Fingerprint-System-Security-Issues.pdf) on this subject was published more than seven years ago.

For me, two questions follow this anouncement: Did the Immigration Bureau also miss that people can become victims of such identity theft? And did they also miss that the machines can get it wrong even when there is no foul play at all. These two problems form parts of two branches of a fault tree (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fault_tree) where the undesired event of trouble for me as an innocent person is the root. The first step to cutting down this rather unwelcome tree is for the Immigration Bureau to know it’s business…

The article apparently went on to state two measures the Immigration Bureau announced to take against the problem of people trying to fool the system. First of all, they apparently wish to opt for checking the prints visually if the machine gives an error. Second, they apparently wish to install monitors on which the prints can be seen by the officers.

Comments: I will start with the second measure. By default, fingerprint scanners encrypt the captured images on the device itself. This is done as an extra measure of protection, mostly because hacking of computers – even ATM machines.

(http://searchfinancialsecurity.techtarget.com/news/article/0,289142,sid185_gci1357926,00.html) – is so widespread these days. To be able to put the prints on a monitor, that encryption must be turned off, or the images decrypted on the computer.

This is important. Identity systems such as this hinge upon the assumption that the rightful owner has the only key. Mind you, this is already so doubtful (see above) that the focus must be on protecting the owner from the bad consequences of other matching keys instead of beating the dead horse of keeping the key unique.

Nevertheless, removing the encryption opens two new branches in the fault tree of duplicate prints, the computer may not be trusted and the user behind the computer may not be trusted. It is against best practices and about the most irresponsible thing the Immigration Bureau could do. The mere fact that trying to go against a certain flow will not work is not an excuse for making the current run faster…

The good part is that it shows such an action is technically possible. Cybercriminals will find that out anyway, but at least the good willing people can know that too now…

The first measure doesn’t really impact me either way, though I would have preferred to hear something about informing the victims of identity theft as it is discovered and similar things… But it also casts doubt on the Immigration Bureau knowing it’s business, which we have established as a condition for acceptable levels of my safety under this program.

Why does this cast doubt? When someone turns up with fake fingerprints and the machine accepts that the pattern it acquires is not on the searchlist, that is in professional terms a negative. One can argue, depending on whether or not the machine should detect them as fakes, if it’s a true negative or a false one. In a true negative, the machine works as designed, it’s just a very smart attacker. But I digress.

When the machine gives an error, this is most likely a failure to acquire. The machine doesn’t get a useful pattern, or it concludes it’s not offered a live finger.

The two may coincide, but they’re not one and the same. After we already got in the situation where one can conclude that the Immigration Bureau missed a few things, it’s not very hopeful news that they send out an announcement suggesting that they can’t keep their errors apart. I would hope I’m never forced to fly with an airline which has just had a crash due to problems with the ailerons and announce that they are going to fix the flaps, at least not without explaining what they’re doing so that people can verify it was the right decision even though it sounds strange…

When I see things schemes like this fingerprinting, my first question will be: “Am I as an innocent person really reasonably safe with this system, given my overall situation?” The answer to that will almost always be yes, unless there’s a very cynical organization involved. My second question follows just as naturally: “Show me”. To me that’s the issue involved, they declined to show me, and when I started looking myself I increasingly find evidence I would have preferred to point to a different conclusion…

Coupled to this comes the use of a Hobson’s choice to extract the information, give or don’t show. Am I to be blamed that I view the combination of these effects as a sign of desiring not to invest the time and money to counter the risks to me precisely because they are that, risks-to-me (instead of them?). Is it strange therefore that I explain my point of view to people who may consider visiting Japan, and also to people with possibly enough influence to advocate my case, in both situations hurting Japan’s public relations? ENDS

What do Debito.org Readers think? Debito

12 comments on “Japan Times et al: Four people snagged for fingerprints over 7 months. No longer an “anti-terrorism” measure. Of questionable effectiveness anyway.

  • This is one of those arguments that you can’t win. It’s like me saying I have a rock that’s 100% effective as a tiger repellent. How do I know it’s 100% effective? Well look around do you see any tigers?

    Regardless of the effectiveness or real purpose behind the fingerprinting it’s not going to go away. And the argument will be that of course it’s effective – the reason we only caught 7 is all the evil folks who would have tried to sneak in decided not to even try because we were fingerprinting, look at how much crime we prevented!.

  • Perhaps I am reading the article wrong but it seems as though the emphasis is on four people caught trying to fool the system (by altering their fingerprints, wearing tape etc.), and not four people caught in total. Not that I would condone the use of the system, but the article seems to examine only a certain aspect (that of its unreliability).
    Of course you could say that even if the total number of people caught was much higher, cost/performance is still dire and the system is a huge waste of money, but as noted here several times before, it’s not really about catching criminals is it, it’s about the government being seen to act.

  • Jerry, Don’t give them any ideas!
    But yes, they’re sure to take that line. “We’ve scared away all the illegals!”
    when in reality they’ve probably merely scared most of the illegals already IN Japan
    from ever leaving, lest they be caught on return.

    But if they have never been arrested for overstaying, would their fingerprints
    even be “on file” anyway? The lack of the proper visa in their passport would still
    be the actual deterrent, not fingerprints. I think the fingerprint scanning only catches
    people who’ve already been caught before, AND have managed to get a fake visa or a fake
    identity to try to enter. That’s not many people. And now we know it’s 4 people over 7 months.

    So can we get a yen/person caught figure?

    This makes the recent Roppongi raid by 220 cops and officials that netted four illegals (I think) look absolutely economical by comparison! 🙂

  • So if it’s to prevent people who have been deported from coming back, why are they targeting people with re-entry permits as well for fingerprinting?

    As usual, taxpayer money is being squandered.

  • So, if the system is not working they try to make “working manually” by checking each entrant with “error” message? If now they are saying is for tracking overstayers why we legal residents are fingerprinted and photographed? Have they ever caught legal resident for “error” message ( Ihad one and a guy behind PC did something without asking anything like he didn`t care and I went through as PR, They got black holes and nice tired face from my 15h flight 🙂 ) Anyway, they have never caught anybody except those who had problems with passport or “hurt” own fingerprints by taking skin off. That`s it! And they were visitors, not residents. Why Immigration do not take away those stupid useless machine first from re-entrants? What are they trying to accomplish? Still thinking we are criminals and terrorists? Oh! I love this section and whenever I see it, I cannot find foreigner even though I try hard to scan it news 🙂

    — Take a deep breath, relax, and proofread your sentences, please.

  • Grant Mahood says:

    Do they really think we have such a short memory?

    No thinking people ever viewed the re-establishment of fingerprinting as anything but a slapdash attempt to show that something was being done to protect Japan from terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. It’s a bad system, has gaping holes, and is anything but a sincere effort to stop infectious diseases and terrorists from entering the country, as it was originally proposed for (In its first serious test, fingerprinting non-Japanese failed to prevent H1N1 influenza from getting into Japan).

    Those who whipped up the fingerprinting program painted in broad strokes, but they were sure to spell out what was required of non-Japanese while leaving out what they considered to be troublesome details, like determining who will be accountable when data is mishandled and creating a procedure for redress when things go wrong.

    Looking at it from the side of the authorities, why should those who created and maintain the program do anything to box themselves in, such as creating penalties for mishandling data, if no one pins them down and demands it? The answer is they wouldn’t, they haven’t and they won’t until they absolutely have to. They are content to leave obscure as much as possible.

    The new Resident Card system is being created in exactly the same way. They roll out the new system with fanfare, proclaim how wonderful it is, and leave out all of the irksome details, the same details that they always leave out.

    If we were accidentally put on an interpol wanted list or lost our jobs or visas due to an accidental detention, it would be terribly naive to think that we would ever be presented with a human person to blame for our lives being destroyed. At last report our fingerprint and face scan data was being handled by the Accenture company, a shadowy company based in Bermuda, courtesy of the Justice Ministry. And this is over the objection of opposition lawmakers who had a laundry list of complaints against the company, including how it was awarded its contract. Would we ever know why our lives had been turned upside down, or would everyone in the system just coverup?

    Law-abiding non-Japanese have really been put in a vulnerable position and it seems to be getting worse, not better. The new Resident Card, originally envisioned to help NJ to get local government benefits that they were missing out on has morphed into yet another central government intrusion into our privacy, and yet another chance for our most sensitive data to be altered, lost, sold, or who-knows-what, by who-knows-who, with no procedure for redress in place, and no enforceable penalties for those who turn our lives upside down. The prospect of being “helped” by more government brainstorms in the future will no doubt make many readers cringe.

    I think many will agree that this article attempts to obscure and rewrite history when it says that the fingerprinting law was designed to detect those who have been deported in the past. It’s natural that the authorities, undoubtedly aware of all the law’s shortcomings, would try to emphasize its successes no matter how small, but we know better.

  • Why So Serious? says:

    “Law-abiding non-Japanese have really been put in a vulnerable position and it seems to be getting worse, not better. The new Resident Card, originally envisioned to help NJ to get local government benefits that they were missing out on has morphed into yet another central government intrusion into our privacy, and yet another chance for our most sensitive data to be altered, lost, sold, or who-knows-what, by who-knows-who, with no procedure for redress in place, and no enforceable penalties for those who turn our lives upside down. The prospect of being “helped” by more government brainstorms in the future will no doubt make many readers cringe.”

    Yeah! And in fact, it may be that a whole of NJs who have never been enrolled in Shakai Hoken because of shady practices of certain companies to which the government has consistantly turned a blind eye will be hit big time by new requirements by the Immigration Bureau for NJ’s to have health insurance enrollment.

    Here is a link to some information from the General Union website.


    It seems that the Immigration Bureau will be including a check on health insurance enrollment as part of the visa renewal process from April 2010. According to the guidelines posted on the Immigration website, you will be required to present proof of enrollment in “social insurance”.

    The GU include a link to the Ministry of Justice webpage.


    They ask the following questions:

    If you are forced to enroll in the city health insurance scheme will enrollment in the pension scheme also be enforced?
    Will people be forced to back enroll?
    Will those that already hold visas that do not need renewal (such as permanent residency) be exempt?
    Or will proof of enrollment be required for re-entry permits?

    It seems that the GU is going to go into negotiation with the Ministry in order to seek clarification of the above points. In order to obtain information in advance of the negotiations, they are running a survey.


    If you are not enrolled, and have never been enrolled, it is probably in your best interests to take this survey.

  • This summer time as well as giving the immigration person an earful, I will insist the machine is cleaned for H1n1 flu, after all hands are the quickest form of spreading a disease, They cant refuse that, eh… give them grief over the summer ,people !
    At least it makes me feel better. 🙂

  • Gary, exactly what I have been thinking. The fingerprints of all these foreign criminals taken on these disease spreading machines…. Where has the uproar been on this one??

  • The Shark says:

    Why do PR holders need to be fingerprinted? You cannot really overstay a permanent resident visa, can you? That means you can’t get deported for overstaying PR visa either. So why would you wanna come back on a fake passport?

  • To Why So Serious?

    and this is one of problems I think may happen that`s why better be off this land than pay back who knows what for. Dying NHI and Pension schemes want us to enroll. They steal money for almost ZERO cover, not only from us but Japanese too. Once you are in hospital your life may be “broken”, 30% is still a lot, I prefer to be 100% covered worldwide. In Netherlands everyone MUST have NHI but you get better service and don`t need to pay 30%, besides low income earners get help from Government who pays for them (about Euro1,000 p.a. per person). Children up to age 18 pays nothing. In Japan they will try to get whatever they can, even when you really have hard time to pay, they don`t care. System here sucks so they want grab as much as they can and I understand. The same with pension, once you leave you get only about 3years back or about 300,00yen (?) that`s it. Unless you stick here for 25years, but this is also catchy towards foreigners. Beware! All these measures towards foreigners are all about getting more from us, not give us better service.Common!!!! We will be still refused entries to clubs, onsens, getting apartment,going for sightseeing with J group (happened to me and my Japanese wife. both refused).
    This is called better service they are going to provide us with. Furthermore, labeling us as criminals when one forget his new ID is really cruel. I say again, it`s all about headlines “Foreign Crime on the rise”. Someone forgot ID, paid 200,000yen apologized and bowed veeeeery deep after interrogation room. Hope less people will come here.
    I have “quiet” hope that DPJ might change this, but….

    To Shark – your point is very good, but you are still can bring diseases, get ticket for wrong parking etc.

    — I’ve asked you before to take deep breaths when writing and to proofread it afterwards. Any more doggerel like this and I’m not going to approve it.

  • Worth comparing the Japanese fingerprinting system with the one being introduced in the UK from 30th November:



    Basically, fingerprints will be taken on every entry if the person has already given their prints as part of any visa application (so their prints will have already been compared to those on a blacklist and passed before they reach the UK). Visa-free travellers are exempted, as are all European Union citizens (because treating UK citizens differently from, for example, French citizens is arguably illegal under EU anti-discrimination laws). Also, people can refuse to give prints and still enter providing they pass more extensive scrutiny.

    Oh, and the UK uses your thumb and first finger.


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