The number of people arrested in Japan for attacking computers with viruses in the hunt for information has more than doubled in four years.

The data, revealed in the government’s latest annual report on the information and communications industry, casts a shadow over Japan’s high-profile attempt to make the country a world leader in the sector.

The figures follow several high-profile cases in recent years in which confidential information was obtained illegally through computers – sometimes, though not always, through viruses.

Last month NTT Card Solution, a unit of Nippon Telegraph & Telephone, the world’s biggest phone company by sales, said a third-party spent up to Y3.2m of customers’ money after stealing the identification numbers of as many as 30,686 users of the company’s Net Cash electronic payment service.

Also last month, KDDI, Japan’s second biggest telecoms company, said private information on almost 4m internet customers had been leaked.

In 2005, information on the management of nuclear power plants was obtained through virus attacks.

Shigeru Ishii of the Information Technology Promotion Agency, an autonomous body linked to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, told the Financial Times: ”Computer viruses are a greater threat these days.”

The agency’s regular monthly report, which uses information from computer users throughout the country, shows the number of cases is “huge compared with several years ago”.

The latest report from the Ministry of Internal Affairs shows 116 people were arrested last year for trying to gain illegal access through computer viruses. This compared with only 88 the year before, and 51 in 2001.

Viruses can gather information by entering a particular computer and monitoring the typing on a keyboard. By doing this, viruses are able to gain IDs and passwords. Viruses are often spread through emails, which enter a computer’s system after they are opened.

But in spite of the worrying numbers for virus attacks, the ministry’s report included some encouraging figures. The ICT sector boosted Japan’s economic growth by a whole percentage point in 2004, for example – the latest year for which details are available.

Japan is highly advanced when compared with other rich economies in many areas of ICT. Its broadband network, for example, already covers about 80 per cent of the population, and is scheduled to cover virtually the whole country by 2010.

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