Woman who breached OSA by leaking Covid-19 data to chat group given 18 weeks' jail

Zhao Zheng played a game with the chat group members to guess the number of confirmed Covid-19 positive cases for the day before revealing the actual figure. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - The deputy lead of the Ministry of Health's (MOH) data management unit prematurely leaked the daily number of confirmed Covid-19 positive cases to a chat group comprising 50 members.

Zhao Zheng also played a game with the other members to guess the number of confirmed cases for the day before revealing the actual figure.

She would then congratulate the member who had come the closest to guessing the correct number. On some occasions, she would even send the person one yuan (Singapore 20 cents) as a "good luck" gift.

On Tuesday (Feb 22), Zhao, 37, was sentenced to 18 weeks' jail after she pleaded guilty to 11 charges under the Official Secrets Act (OSA).

The Singaporean also admitted to a charge under the Computer Misuse Act.

Tang Lin, 36, who was another Singaporean member of the group on the messaging platform WeChat, was fined $10,000 last year after she pleaded guilty to five charges of wrongful communication under the OSA.

MOH told The Straits Times on Tuesday that Zhao is no longer working for it.

Its spokesman added: “The officer was suspended from work in April 2020 once MOH was informed that the police had started investigations and her access to the ministry’s confidential information was also terminated.

“Following the incident, MOH has reviewed and tightened our information security protocols and processes.”

The court heard that in 2008, she signed an undertaking to safeguard official information.

She then became an assistant director of the biostatistics and research branch of MOH's Public Health Division.

Some time in February 2020, she was deployed to be the deputy lead of the data management unit, which the ministry had set up in response to the pandemic.

As part of her job, she could find out the number of Covid-19 positive cases in Singapore on a given day before MOH released the information to the public.

Zhao could also find out the profile of each positive case.

Deputy Public Prosecutors Joshua Lim, Selene Yap and Lim Shin Hui stated in court documents that she started to prematurely share the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the chat group as early as March 16, 2020.

The DPPs added: "(She) had told the members... not to disseminate the information she provided to them, as she knew that she was not supposed to share such information.

"The accused would also occasionally share other details relating to the Covid-19 cases... such as how many... were 'imported' cases in a given day."

On some days, Zhao also played the guessing game with the other members.

Some time in March 2020, Tang found out that somebody living at her condominium complex had been confirmed to have Covid-19.

She then sent a private message to Zhao to find out more information about the case.

The prosecutors told the court: "On March 28, 2020, while using her government-issued laptop, (Zhao) performed a function... for the purpose of securing access without authority to data held in a computer... and (searched a spreadsheet) for the address of the condominium (where Tang lived)."

Zhao found out that a resident there had indeed contracted Covid-19. Zhao then shared with Tang details such as her neighbour being an imported case.

The group was eventually disbanded some time after April 16, 2020, when its moderator received information that the daily number of confirmed Covid-19 cases was being shared on a larger scale - beyond the members or their spouses.

The head of MOH’s case reporting team lodged a police report on April 18 that year, stating that the ministry suspected that the daily number of confirmed Covid-19 cases for some days had been leaked.

On Tuesday, the prosecutors urged the court to sentence Zhao to between six and nine months’ jail.

They said: “The leak of the information by the accused... also caused various public agencies involved in the fight against Covid-19 to redirect resources to deal with the consequences of the leak.

“Given the inter-agency cooperation of Singapore’s fight against Covid-19, multiple agencies, including MOH and enforcement agencies, expended resources assessing whether the leaks were true.”

The agencies also had to find out information such as who had access to the files and the number of occasions that leaks had taken place.

The DPPs said: “This was extremely time-consuming given the viral nature of the information spread, and this had to be done concurrently with their attempts to fight the pandemic. 

“Resources had to be spent to ensure that further leaks of information would not take place.”

Zhao was represented by lawyers Diana Ngiam, Joyce Khoo and Sunil Sudheesan.

In their mitigation plea, they told the court that she had never intended to make light of the Covid-19 situation.

The lawyers added: “Our client’s motivation was to do what she could, as a mother, to assuage the fear and uncertainty among the other mothers in the WeChat group. 

“Our client mistakenly thought she could lighten the mood by occasionally making the sharing of Covid-19 numbers as a game, as it was a time of heightened emotions and stress for all. This is a clear mistake and our client is sincerely sorry.”

Before handing down the sentence on Tuesday, Deputy Presiding Judge S. Jennifer Marie noted that the case involved confidential and sensitive information.

The judge also stressed that Zhao had "breached the trust and confidence" reposed in her.

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