When Kazumasa Sato was assigned to Sony Corp.'s information technology section as a fresh economics graduate in 1980, he was baffled.
Maintaining an information system using IBM mainframe computers was not precisely what he envisioned doing at one of the country's most famous tech companies known for innovative products such as the iconic Walkman cassette player and Trinitron TV.
But about 40 years later, Sato says that experience set the course for his career. His fascination with networks eventually led him to set up a data security venture utilizing blockchain technology with other former Sony innovators, including former president Kunitake Ando.
Jasmy Inc., established in 2016, aims to create a world where people can have control over their personal data at a time when big tech firms such as Google LLC and Apple Inc. have obtained an unfathomable amount of personal information from customers across the globe.
"There could be a network that is more secure and safe," Sato, the 66-year-old president of the venture, said in an interview. "We are from Sony so we love to take a shot at doing things that other people can't do."
The ambition resulted in a service called "Personal Data Locker," a platform where people can safely manage their data and decide how much they want to disclose to businesses or services they wish to use.
Unlike the conventional, centralized data management system in which personal data are stored in a particular server, the service employs the blockchain to store data in a decentralized way, without depending on dedicated physical servers.
That prevents falsification and loss of data as the blockchain, an encoded digital ledger stored across a network of computers, does not allow data to be modified or deleted by a single actor. It also helps users identify and trace unintended use of their data by a third party as it is inherently trackable on the ledger, the company said.
The service has already been adopted by Nippon Travel Agency Co., which uses it to manage customer information. Witz Corp., a Nagoya-based company that helps manage logistics at large events, also uses it to handle personal information such as with infections due to the coronavirus. Jasmy said it is looking to expand its customer base further.
The venture has also created its own cryptocurrency, JasmyCoin, with an eye to using it in the future as a reward to those who shared their information. The virtual currency, which was first listed in Japan in 2021 and now held by more than 50,000 people, has a market capitalization of about $200 million as of the end of July.
Ever since being initially shocked by the emerging concept of the internet in the early years of his career, Sato always had a passion for network-related businesses, he said.
"The internet was a concept that had been non-existent before," said Sato, who later helped launch internet service provider businesses at Sony and served as president of Sony's e-commerce unit. "It threw common sense out the window. It was extremely attractive."
He left Sony in 2010 to pursue other opportunities, but as he saw the need for a safe internet rise on the back of increasing misinformation, online abuse, and concerns over the use of personal data, he decided to launch a venture to help create a network everyone can use more safely.
Sato's idea attracted like-minded risk-takers from Sony.
Takashi Hagiwara, a long-time engineer in charge of the development of the Vaio PC, quit the tech giant in 2020 with less than one year left before reaching the company's retirement age to join Jasmy.
"There is a sort of joy that is similar to solving a puzzle when we try to bring our ideas into reality," said Hagiwara, who oversees software development at the venture. "That's what I felt at Sony and what I continue to feel here, too."
Hidehiko Kakinuma, who has a wealth of experience launching new businesses, including Sony Bank Inc., now serves as executive officer in charge of marketing at Jasmy.
"The emergence of blockchain (technology) is a really important factor," the 56-year-old executive said. "With that, we can create a system that gives back to users" when dealing with personal data.
With various options under consideration, Sato says his ultimate goal is to combine its technology with artificial intelligence.
While interest in generative AI such as ChatGPT is booming, he said there is always a risk that if one enters sensitive information, it can be absorbed into the system and lead to an unintended data leak.
The combination of Jasmy's data security technology and AI could create a kind of AI optimized for personal use without worrying about data security.
Such an AI could be installed into various devices such as cars and smart speakers, among other things, he added.
"If people feel threatened by exposing their personal data, they become reluctant to utilize data," he said. "But if we are able to manage our data on our own, it will surely make the world more fun and convenient."
Sato compared his company's service to making real-life decisions such as how much personal information you wish to disclose when meeting new people or if you offer your name card when greeting someone in a business setting.
"This is what everybody does in real life," Sato said. "You don't necessarily have to lie, but you don't really have to expose everything, either."