A Japanese government report has repeated what other government reports across the West have already warned - that at least 40 percent of companies are taking no special measures to ensure the privacy and security of personal data stored on computers.

Results of the survey were included in the government's annual White Paper on Information and Communications in Japan, which was published by the Ministry of Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications (MPHPT). It comes after several incidents in the last year in which personal information on customers, sometimes numbering into the millions of people, has been leaked or stolen from Japanese companies.

Around 2,000 companies and 300 public organizations and educational establishments were surveyed for the report and responses were received from around 900, the report said. They were asked about measures being taken at an organisational level, such as staff training on how to handle such information, and at a technical level, such as restricting employee access and encryption of data.

In the area of structural and organisational measures, the largest positive response came when companies were asked if they had clarified the purpose for which the information was being used and collected. Just under a quarter of companies said that this was being or had been done. Just over one-fifth of responses, or 21 percent, said internal staff training had been enhanced to include instruction on handling of personal information and 16.7 percent of companies said they had narrowed the amount of information requested from customers.

Only 14.4 percent of companies said they had appointed a person in charge of protecting personal information and 10.5 percent of companies said they had a privacy policy. In the area of organisational measures, 37.2 percent of companies said they are taking no special measures.

Asked about technical measures, the responses were not vastly different. Just over 27 percent of companies said they were managing the ability of staff to use personal information and 21.7 percent said they ensured physical destruction of data when PCs were disposed of. Companies maintaining a history of what information was used, and when, numbered 15.5 percent.

Only 1.1 percent of companies said they had a system in place to detect intrusions into databases holding personal information and 5 percent said they encrypted data when it was being stored or transported. Just under 42 percent of companies said no special technical measures were being taken.

Japan has seen a number of cases in which personal information has been leaked from major companies so far this year.

One of the biggest has involved broadband Internet provider Softbank BB, which said last February that data on 4.5 million customers, including their name, address, telephone number, e-mail address, Yahoo e-mail address or ID and broadband service application date, had been obtained by people outside of the company.

Leaks at other companies have also made local headlines this year. Cosmo Oil leaked data on an estimated 2.2 million customers while tour operator Hankyu Express said data on more than 600,000 clients found its wayoutside of the company. Credit card company Sanyo Shinpan lost data on more than a million card holders and fellow card-issuer Nippon said information on up to 100,000 of its clients was leaked.

A poll of 159 major Japanese companies conducted by Kyodo News in April this year found that nearly one in ten companies had experienced a leak or loss of customer personal information in the previous two years. The survey found 15 of the companies, or 9.4 percent, said data relating to 260,000 customers, including their names, addresses and phone numbers, was lost.

"It is likely that there will be a higher dependancy on networks and a higher possibility of leaks," said Takaaki Saeki, deputy director of the MPHPT's economic research office. "This might affect confidence therefore companies will need to take further measures to protect information."

Indeed, much of the rest of the white paper does underline the broadening of Japan's network society.Broadband subscribers in Japan, who numbered around 15 million at the end of 2003, enjoy the world's cheapest Internet access, the report said, quoting a recent survey by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Ranked by price per 100Kbit/s of bandwidth per month, Japan leads the world at $0.09 thanks to high-speed, low-price services.

Penetration of mobile Internet services is also the highest in the world at 89.5 percent of all mobile phone users. Just under 17 million people had 3G mobile phones at the end of April of this year and more than 60 percent of mobile phones in use have a digital camera function, according to the report.