Exploring the Social and Legal Aspects of Online Privacy in Japan

Exploring the Social and Legal Aspects of Online Privacy in Japan

In early August, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Dr Andrew A Adams, a lecturer at Japan’s Meiji University, to discuss his work on human-computer interactions and the social and legal aspects of computing and online privacy. Dr Adams’ work on Anglo-Japanese Information Ethics: Comparisons and Cross-Fertilisation received funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and was accredited as part of the Global Uncertainties programme.

Kate McNeil: Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your research background?

Dr Andrew Adams: I began my career in theoretical computer science working on mathematics and logic in computing. After a few years, I realized I wanted to focus my work on an area where there were more opportunities. I was interested in the social impact and legal questions posed by computing and I was already teaching a course at the University of Reading on the professional and legal aspects of computing, so I decided to make this my focus area. To improve my understanding of the social science research, I did a master’s in law and then gradually shifted across into the new field exploring the social, legal, and ethical aspects of computing.

How did you end up working on Anglo-Japanese Information Ethics?

In 2005, I went to a computer ethics conference in Sweden where I met two Japanese researchers, Professor Kiyoshi Murata and his then PhD student Dr Yohko Orito, who were presenting on privacy in Japan. Japan had just adopted new comprehensive privacy regulations, and privacy was one of the areas I had been focusing on in my own research. I struck up a discussion with them about the potential for some comparative research between the UK and Japan’s developing privacy situations. Following those conversations, in 2007 the Royal Academy of Engineering and Meiji University funded me to come do a nine-month sabbatical exploring the legal and social impact of developments in Japan’s data protection laws.

I wanted to continue that collaboration, and in 2009-2010, I received funding from the EPSRC to go back to Japan to continue that collaboration, including conducting further research on emerging social norms in the UK and Japan on privacy.

What did that research project entail?

From 2009-2010, I visited Meiji University several times to continue our work on privacy issues, and to broaden that work out into other related issues. Our early research focused on legal issues, but over time we began to work on deepening our understanding of cultural attitudes towards privacy in Japan and the emerging issue of social media. 2007-2010 was a fascinating time to be studying social media in Japan because during that period, Japan went from having a dominant homegrown social network service to having that service be overtaken in the marketplace by Facebook. While Facebook has a real name usage policy, the Japanese social network it overtook, Mixi, was pseudonymous. By interviewing cohorts about their views on pseudonymity online, we developed some interesting ideas during that period about how privacy is influenced by social networking services. Based on this work, in 2014 I published a paper which explores this through the lens of psychological theories: how network effects and post-decision bias results in people accepting and internalizing the online privacy and security norms of the network they have joined.

Has your work on Anglo-Japanese Information Ethics influenced any of your subsequent work?

The EPSRC grants had kept my connection to Japan going, and in 2010, I was offered a position as a Specially Appointed Professor at Meiji University’s Graduate School of Business Administration. Moving to Japan might not have happened if not for the grants from my university, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and EPSRC.

A few years after I moved to Japan, Edward Snowden’s revelations made a big splash in privacy and surveillance studies. At that time, the Pew Research Foundation’s internet research group had done some interesting studies on American attitudes towards Snowden’s revelations, including the contents of his revelations and whether they felt that Snowden had done the right thing. We thought that research was very interesting, but because the NSA surveillance was targeting people all around the world, we thought it was a pity that the Pew Foundation research had only talked to Americans. So, building on existing links through a conference community, we set up an international project which explored the cross-cultural impact of Snowden’s revelations and examined students’ attitudes towards Snowden’s findings in countries including Mexico, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, the Republic of China, and New Zealand. We then did an internal evaluation about whether people trusted their own governments, whether people felt comfortable with commercial or government surveillance, whether they felt the NSA had a reasonable right to do what it was doing, and whether, if they found themselves in Snowden’s shoes, they would choose to whistle blow information about their own country’s intelligence operations. The previous research I had done on attitudes towards privacy in the UK and Japan really set the stage for this project. We also ended up finding that the Swedes and the Japanese were very unlikely to reveal information as Snowden did. In Japan, we have speculated that it’s because people aren’t encouraged to stand out and go against the grain, while in Sweden, we believe it is because of the level of trust Swedes have in their government.

What are you working on now?

I am part of an EU project on responsible research and innovation. Part of that project involves exploring how responsible research innovation practices fit together or occasionally form barriers to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

I have also been working with an American film studies scholar and securities researchers on how the presentation of security issues in films and television impacts how societies understand and think about those security concerns. Last year we published a paper critically exploring the presentation of security in superheroes on screen. That ranged from exploring how local crime issues are portrayed in the Daredevil TV show, to exploring how international terrorism, climate change and nuclear weapons are addressed and represented in movies like Iron Man. We are now continuing our collaboration and are exploring the portrayal of AI in movies, and film portrayals of surveillance and surveillance capitalism.

Photo by Tianyi Ma on Unsplash