Ex-Straits Times deputy editor Alan John has joined the chorus of outrage against the Ministry of Health over the HIV Registry data leak, that was announced this week.
On Tuesday, MOH revealed that the confidential details – like names, HIV status, other medical information, NRIC numbers, contact numbers, and addresses – of 14,200 HIV positive individuals and 2,400 people these individuals were in contact with, were leaked.
The confidential records are now in the illegal possession of a foreigner, named Mikhy K Farrera Brochez, who has been deported out of Singapore after being convicted of numerous fraud and drug-related offences. The foreigner gained access to the HIV Registry data through his boyfriend, a local medical doctor.
Criticism against MOH mounted when it was revealed that it knew about the data leak as early as two years ago. MOH had discovered that Brochez was in possession of the stolen records in May 2016. While MOH lodged a police report and “all relevant material found were seized and secured by the Police,” the public was not informed of this discovery.
Two years later, in May 2018, after Brochez had been deported, MOH found that he still had part of the records he had in 2016. Although the Ministry contacted the affected individuals, the public was, again, not informed of this discovery.
About eight months later, on 22 Jan 2019, MOH found that Brochez could have illegal possession of more HIV Registry records and that he had disclosed the information online. Days after this discovery, MOH finally disclosed the incident to the public.
Revealing that he, like many fellow Singaporeans, was “stuck at the fact that there was this massive breach of the Official Secrets Act and it was kept quiet until this week,” Alan John shared a personal anecdote showing how “utterly cruel” the HIV data leak is before taking MOH to task for not doing more in the past two years:
“I’ve been stuck at the fact that there was this massive breach of the Official Secrets Act and it was kept quiet until this week. Police report made in 2016, quietly. A charge included in the doctor’s case, but it was stood down and it doesn’t look like any court reporter spotted it. Meanwhile, other individuals have been dealt with under the OSA for doing much, much less. Sigh!
“For some years in the late 1990s when I helped at Action for AIDS’ anonymous blood testing centre at Kelantan Lane, I witnessed the anxiety of many people of all ages who came to be tested, and the anguish and tears of those who had to be told they’d tested positive. Although so much has changed in the treatment of people who are HIV positive, the stigma has not gone away, the ignorance and fear persist, and most people who are positive in Singapore still keep their status private. So what this horrible jerk has done by releasing the identities of people who tested positive is utterly cruel and truly, truly awful. None of us can imagine the anxiety of those who worry now that their HIV status is going to be exposed. So some of us will wonder why more was not done between 2016 and now to avoid that data breach coming to this.
“If there is any good that can come of this terrible case, it is that more individuals living with HIV will now stand up and say: “You know what, I’m positive, I’m alive and I’m OK. You’re not OK with that? That’s your problem.” Fight the stigma harder. With the medication available, many are living normal lives and living long lives. If the Health Ministry wants to make amends to the HIV community for this breach of its confidential records, it can do more now to fight the persistent ignorance in Singapore that keeps people living with HIV in a state of fear of being found out. It’s a chronic medical condition, treatable.”
Earlier, another ex-Straits Times heavyweight, Bertha Henson, criticised MOH over how it handled the HIV data leak. Asserting that MOH’s handling of the HIV registry data theft seemed like it was meant to “cover up” the leak, the veteran journalist said:
“What an exercise in ambiguity! What did the authorities do at this stage to plug the leak?…Did he attempt blackmail? And how many affected individuals were there? At this point in time, did the authorities still believe there was no need to make public the news that some information had been stolen?
“In any case, in this same year, coincidentally, MOH instituted additional safeguards, including a two-person approval process to download and decrypt information, against mishandling of information by authorised staff. It also disabled the use of unauthorised portable storage devices on official computers in 2017, “as part of a government-wide policy’’.
“I don’t how else to describe the above except to use the term “cover-up’’.”
Sharing that she holds the “forlorn hope that some hard questions will be raised by Members of Parliament” when Parliament sits on 11 Feb, Henson asserted:
“I have had enough of officials telling us when they should give information that affects people or what sort of information should be made public. I have also had my fill of people who say we don’t have to know everything, and that we should let the G handle everything.
“I think our brain should work more than once in every four or five years.”