Japan will consider using unique biological data about individuals such as fingerprints and facial features to tighten immigration controls as part of its counter-terrorism policy, government officials said yesterday.
The move would be in line with measures in many other countries, including the US, which has begun fingerprinting and photographing most visitors from abroad in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks.
Japan has decided to introduce passports with chips containing so-called biometrics information next year, and would look into whether to make use of such data in screening foreign visitors, the officials said.
Calls for tighter immigration controls have gained momentum since revelations last month that al Qaeda might have attempted to build a network in Japan.
Japanese police arrested several foreigners in May in an investigation into the activities of a French national with links to al Qaeda who entered Japan on a false passport in 2002 and stayed for over a year.
But Tokyo has not made any decisions yet, given concerns that stricter immigration controls might turn off tourists thinking about visiting Japan and due to criticism by some human rights groups that the use of biometrics was a violation of individual rights.
"Biometrics may lead to a strengthening of surveillance of society," said Makoto Teranaka, secretary-general of Amnesty International`s Japan branch.
"There must be utmost caution in how such information is gathered and how it is used," he said.
A working team of officials, including those from foreign and justice ministries, plan to start discussions on the issue later this month, officials said.
"We are aware of the debate over private information and the potential impact on our tourism policy," said an official at the Cabinet Office.
Japan has set up a goal to double the number of tourists to Japan by 2010 -- about 5.73 million foreigners entered Japan in 2003 -- to turn around its huge deficit in tourism.
In 2001, the latest year for which official figures are available, Japan had a $23 billion deficit on tourism, with Japanese travellers spending $26 billion abroad, while visitors to Japan spent $3 billion.