Exclusive: Japan’s plan to boost cybersecurity before the 2020 Olympics

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with William Saito, Special Advisor to the Cabinet Office of Japan.

Japan is a high-tech haven, but has more to do on cybersecurity. The government has found that “34% of Japanese business executives do not consider cybersecurity as part of their business challenges”.

“The World Economic Forum has a statistic that shows that Japan is the country that most lacks IT and cybersecurity talent,” says William Saito, special technology adviser to the Prime Minister of Japan.

“We have an Olympics coming up in three years, so it’s urgent.” To close this gap, Saito is spearheading a cybersecurity development programme, he tells

GovInsider. Among its participants are civil servants and businesses, with a focus on critical infrastructure providers. Speaking on the sidelines of the Interpol World 2017 conference, he shares Japan’s cybersecurity plans, and how it will use technology to address an ageing society.

Cybersecurity in the spotlight

In April this year, the Ministry of Economic Trade and Industry established the Industrial Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence, which houses Saito’s mid-career development programme.

Besides public sector, more than 30 companies from Japan’s automobile, utility, railway and real estate industries have expressed interest in enrolling their employees, according to Saito.

The 11-month programme takes in 100 students per year, and covers topics such as corporate governance, forensics, cyber exercises, business management and ethics, and global case studies, among others.

Cybersecurity experts require a combination of technical and social science skills, Saito says. “We don’t want a bunch of programmers and hackers,” he adds.

“If it was a technical issue, Japan would not have a problem, we have programmers. The problem with cybersecurity in these things is the ‘human element’.”

In Japan’s education system, there is an “institutional problem” of college students in STEM not having humanities as part of their curriculum, while the humanities students do not have STEM subjects as part of theirs.

As a result, humanities graduates who later go on to become executives may have limited knowledge of IT, Saito explains. “If you graduate college you’re either in humanities or you’re in STEM,” he says.

“This creates problems, because cybersecurity is a human issue. If we didn’t have humans, we would not need cybersecurity.”

With the development programme, Saito hopes to cultivate professionals that can understand the current cyber threat landscape, brief their agencies or organisations about cyber risks, and propose solutions or strategies to management in an easily understandable way.

Then, “whether they are politicians or bureaucrats, whether they are CEOs of companies—[these people] can quantify the problem”, he explains.

“Cybersecurity is clearly a board-level issue, and for a government, it’s a high-level issue because it’s so encompassing,” he explains. “For a government, cybersecurity is a high-level issue because it’s so encompassing.” 

Silver tsunami

Beyond the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, cybersecurity is also fundamental to how Japan cares for its ageing population. Life expectancy for Japanese men surpassed 80 years in 2013, and for women, it was 87 in 2014, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

With every city outside of Tokyo “basically a retirement city”, Saito says, Japan is exploring innovative ways to care for its silver-haired citizens.

“We’re going to have less people to take care of [the elderly] so we are actually more reliant than other countries on AI and robotics for elderly care”.

There is widespread use of sensor technologies that help keep an eye on dementia sufferers. There are sensors in homes and on lampposts and cameras on doors, which send an alert to caregivers if grandma wanders off, says Saito.

“But you can’t have grandma also memorise 20-digit passwords,” he adds. “You need a new form of cybersecurity, and I think that’s a huge opportunity for Japan.” “You can’t have grandma memorise 20-digit passwords.” 

The trust of the people

From working with countries around the world, Saito believes that governments “don’t realise” cyber security is “fundamental” to the conveniences of modern life.

From the contactless card systems that allow droves to take the metro to work, to the biometric fingerprint scanners that let them into their offices - all sorts of innovation that can only work with “very good security”, he says.

However, governments often focus on innovations and features without realising that they also have to be safe and secure, he says.

The good news is that there is a level of trust in technology now - a far cry from a time when it was almost a scary thought for anyone to use their credit card to pay for items online.

“Now it is normal for people to do this, because they have more confidence in cybersecurity,” Saito says. Saito himself was a prominent entrepreneur, having developed one of the world’s first fingerprint scanners.

He also developed a contactless card system a few decades ago that is now known as the ubiquitous Octopus contactless card, used across Hong Kong to pay for public transport.

As Japan gears up for the Olympics, critical systems must be just as prepared - made possible with the right cybersecurity skills and talent.

Government cybersecurity leaders will be in Singapore at Innovation Labs World on 26 September 2017 to share lessons on boosting capabilities. Register today.