SINGAPORE: A woman charged in court on Wednesday (Apr 14) with leaking Singapore's daily COVID-19 case numbers on 22 occasions last year to a private group chat was the deputy lead of the Data Management Unit set up by the Ministry of Health (MOH).
Zhao Zheng, 36, was the unit's deputy lead at the time of the offences and an authorised recipient of confidential information on COVID-19. The police arrested her in April last year during the "circuit breaker" period for allegedly leaking the daily COVID-19 case numbers before they were officially released.
On Wednesday, Zhao was given more than 20 charges under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) for wrongful communication of information that she had access to due to her position, and unauthorised access to a computer to obtain confidential information.
She allegedly sent information of COVID-19-positive cases for the day to a WeChat group with 49 other members on 22 occasions in March and April last year, before MOH had officially released the information. The members of the private chat group were not authorised to receive the information, the police said on Tuesday.
Charge sheets also state that she accessed an Excel document titled "master" on Mar 28, 2020, to obtain confidential details of a COVID-19 case in order to inform co-accused Tang Lin of the status of the case without authorisation.
Zhao's lawyer, Diana Ngiam from Quahe Woo & Palmer, told the court that "it was unprecedented times" and her client was "under immense pressure".
Tang, also 36, was given 10 charges under the OSA.
She is accused of soliciting Zhao to send information to her on Mar 28 last year, by asking her to check on the case status of a person who had tested positive for COVID-19.
Tang is also accused of sending confidential information on the number of COVID-19 cases to a WhatsApp chat group containing five other members on nine occasions between Mar 26 and Apr 16 last year.
In a statement after the charging, MOH said Zhao, an officer at the ministry, had been suspended from work.
“MOH takes a very serious view of any wrongful access and communication of information by our staff,” said the MOH spokesperson.
He added that Zhao was suspended from work once MOH was informed that the police had started investigations and Zhao’s access to the ministry’s confidential information was also terminated.
“Following the incident, MOH has reviewed and tightened our information security protocols and processes,” said the spokesperson.
“As the case is before the court, we are unable to comment further.”
Both Zhao and Tang will return to court next month.
64 OTHERS GIVEN WARNINGS, ADVISORIES
A member of the public lodged a report on Apr 16 that the number of COVID-19 cases for that day had been published on an Instagram story post, even though MOH had not officially released its figures for the day.
Investigations found that after Zhao allegedly shared the COVID-19 daily numbers in the private chat group, some of those members went on to disseminate the information before it was officially released by MOH.
Sixty-four people who had wrongfully received or communicated the information will be given stern warnings or written advisories for offences under the OSA, the police said on Tuesday.
The police said they take a serious view of any breach of the OSA, which is punishable with up to two years' jail and a fine of up to S$2,000.
"Unauthorised recipients should delete and not further circulate any confidential information received, as they may otherwise be similarly liable under the Official Secrets Act," said the police.
The two women are the first to be charged among people who were arrested for leaking COVID-19-related information.
READ: 2 arrested under Official Secrets Act for leak of MOE, MSF statement on schools closure, move to home-based learning
A public servant and her husband were arrested in early April last year for allegedly circulating a draft of a joint media statement announcing that schools were moving into full home-based learning and that pre-schools and student care centres would be closed to curb the spread of the pandemic.
In June 2020, a 50-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of leaking classified information on the resumption of activities as part of Phase 2 of Singapore's reopening.