The government has decided to ban the use of privately operated free e-mail and other services in the wake of recent revelations that a large amount of official information from central government entities was freely accessible through the Google Groups mail sharing service, officials said.
The decision was made Thursday at an emergency meeting of chief secretaries of the central government’s ministries and agencies. Officials met following media reports that government officials using the Google Groups service had inadvertently made important information visible to anyone, including the details of negotiations on an international treaty.
Some criticized the officials--who handle important information in Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki political district, information that can be regarded as the property of the public--as too careless, since they continued to use the free service so casually.
“The ministry’s internal system is too inconvenient to use,” said a senior Environment Ministry official who was involved in the negotiations on the Minamata Convention on Mercury in Geneva in January. Information concerning the negotiations was sent to Google Groups and could be seen by anyone, The Yomiuri Shimbun has reported.
“It requires us to enter passwords many times, and the connection is unstable,” the official said.
When an official uses the ministry’s e-mail system from outside, he needs to enter four different passwords. To use Google Groups, an official needs to enter only two passwords required to activate a PC.
Negotiations on a treaty are usually conducted in large venues, such as multiple conference rooms in a major hotel, and are divided into different topics. To keep up with the content of negotiations, swift information sharing is essential. “We wanted to shorten the time to confirm e-mails,” the official explained.
It is believed that ministry officials frequently used the Google Groups service. It has also been learned that they used the service concerning the negotiations on the 18th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change held in Doha in November and December, although access to the information was restricted at that time.
“Whether access was restricted is not the point. As people who deal with confidential information, their awareness of security was too low, as they used a free service like that,” said a senior official at the National Information Security Center. Part of the Cabinet Secretariat, the NISC is in charge of the government’s information management and control.
However, this tendency to give higher priority to convenience than security is seen at other government entities as well.
“If I’d observed internal regulations, I couldn’t have done my work,” said a former government official who retired last year. Although internal regulations stipulate that work-related e-mails should be sent from official terminals to official addresses, it takes at least one day to complete the procedures to take an official PC out on a business trip.
“It was impossible to do that when I had to go on an urgent business trip,” the former official said. Therefore, he always used his private PC to send work-related mails, but was never warned by his superiors.
It has been confirmed that official information was revealed from three ministries and an agency: the Environment Ministry; the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry; the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry; and the Reconstruction Agency.
The internal regulations of the environment and land ministries allow officials to use free services if approved by their immediate superiors, ministry officials said.
However, the regulations of the agriculture ministry and Reconstruction Agency stipulate work-related e-mails should be sent only from official addresses and ban the use of private free services, according to officials of the bodies. They said the use of Google Groups could constitute a violation of the internal regulations.
This raises the question of why regulations differ among government bodies.
An official of the NISC, which sets uniform standards for the government’s information management, insisted, “In our understanding, the use of free private services is already forbidden.” However, this is not clearly stated in the uniform standards.
Regarding sending e-mails, the standards only say, “Keep safety in mind and be sure to notify responsible officials.” About the use of a computer outside a ministry or agency, they say, “One must report this to superiors after taking safety control measures.”
The NISC source said, “The expressions used are vague, so we couldn’t make each ministry and agency fully aware of safety issues.”