Japan outlaws the creation of computer viruses

Japan has passed a law making it a criminal offence to create or distribute computer viruses, plugging an important legal hole in the country's ability to tackle cyber-crime.

The update to Japan's penal code will be a boon for authorities seeking to clamp down on high-tech criminals, having previously struggled to bring the perpetrators of cyber-attacks to justice.

The legislation also brings the country in line with the international Convention on Cybercrime. The treaty has been ratified by 31 states, and requires signatories to cooperate towards cracking online crime. Led by the Council of Europe, it has been in force since 2004, with the USA joining in 2006.

Under Japan's new law, those accused of creating or distributing a computer virus without reasonable cause will face up to three years in jail or a fine of up to 500,000 yen. Acquiring or storing a virus will be punishable by up to two years in prison or a 300,000 yen fine.

The new law isn't without its critics, with civil liberties groups claiming that the law infringes Japan's constitutionally guaranteed privacy of communications. The new legislation gives law enforcement agencies investigating a cyber-crime the power to request that Internet service providers retain communications logs for up to 60 days.

Due to the controversy over privacy, the Judicial Affairs Committee of Japan's upper house of parliament is awaiting a further resolution before the legislation can come into effect.

Similar difficulties in prosecuting offenders accused of cyber-crimes were experienced in the UK prior to the passing of the Computer Misuse Act (1990), which made hacking and other forms of malicious disruption a specific criminal offence. Before the legislation was passed, hackers were charged with the offence of 'abstracting electricity'.

Japanese authorities had previously relied on ill-equipped copyright legislation to clamp down on virus writers.