Woman fined S$10,000 for sharing COVID-19 case information leaked in chat group by MOH officer
SINGAPORE: A woman who was in a group chat for mothers received leaked information on daily COVID-19 cases from a fellow chat group member who was from a Ministry of Health (MOH) data unit.
Bank employee Tang Lin, 36, further leaked the information she received on nine occasions to her colleagues and friends. She also sought specific information from the MOH officer, who was part of a data unit set up to combat the pandemic, on a suspected COVID-19 case in her condominium.
Tang was fined S$10,000 by a court on Friday (Aug 20). She pleaded guilty to five charges under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), with another five charges taken into consideration.
The court heard that Tang was an acquaintance of co-accused Zhao Zheng, 36. Zhao was the deputy lead of the Data Management Unit set up by MOH at the time of the offences in March and April last year.
The pair were part of a 50-person WeChat messaging group. Zhao began leaking information on the daily number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore that she had obtained in her work capacity as a public servant.
The information Zhao had access to included the age, address, nationality and movement patterns of COVID-19 cases. While leaking the information to the chat group, Zhao told them not to disseminate the information as she knew she was not supposed to do so.
Tang began sharing some of the information she received from Zhao through private messages to her own friends, in face-to-face conversations and eventually to five of her colleagues in another group chat.
She intended to encourage her colleagues to be careful and take more precautions, said Deputy Public Prosecutor Joshua Lim.
ASKED ABOUT A CASE AT HER CONDOMINIUM
In March last year, Tang heard that there was a COVID-19 case in her condominium and asked the WeChat group if anyone knew any further details.
When no one responded, she privately texted Zhao to ask for information. She was concerned as she had taken her child to the pool and playground at the condominium and was worried that her child had come into contact with the confirmed case.
Zhao made searches in the system after seeing Tang's query in the chat group. When Tang texted her, she told Tang it was an imported case and provided more details at Tang's request.
An MOH official lodged a police report on Apr 18, 2020, saying the ministry suspected that the daily numbers of COVID-19 cases for several days in April had been leaked.
Mr Lim sought a fine of S$10,000 for Tang. He said this was one of several cases where information contravening the OSA was leaked by public servants during the pandemic.
Because of these leaks, the public service had to expend resources to trace the leaks and adjust its approach, including ringfencing certain processes to slow down the spread of information among agencies during investigations.
The knock-on effect of a premature release of information on COVID-19 cases could have impacted markets, retailers, employers and travellers, said Mr Lim.
He said it was important that such information was released in a manner that would not cause panic, pointing to how people panicked and crowded supermarkets, exacerbating the situation.
While saying that a message had to be sent that public servants entrusted with highly confidential information should be guardians of such information, Mr Lim acknowledged that Tang did what she did "largely out of concern for others around her".
SHE WAS OVERWHELMED, CONCERNED: DEFENCE
In mitigation, defence lawyer Raymond Ng asked for a fine of S$7,500. He said his client was grateful that no jail term was sought, as it would have severely impacted her financial situation and her concerns about her son.
He explained that Tang was originally from China and came to Singapore to study, graduating with a degree in engineering. After working in Singapore, she took up citizenship in 2015 and married and settled down here, giving birth to her son in 2018.
Tang lives in a small apartment with her son, while her husband went to China to work in 2019 and has not returned since.
On Mar 27, 2020, Tang took a day off from work and took her young son to the condominium's pool and playground, where they spent about four hours, Mr Ng said.
Later that evening, she heard from a neighbour that the pool and playground had been fenced off because of a COVID-19 case, the lawyer said.
Overwhelmed by her emotions and feeling guilty if her son were to catch COVID-19, the woman asked Zhao for information.
She did not know Zhao personally and had not talked to her before this. The chat group they were in was made up mostly of mothers who had come from China to Singapore for their tertiary education, said Mr Ng.
"The accused is very sorry and remorseful about the whole matter," he said. "At that time the situation was entirely unprecedented."
He pointed out that the other people in the chat group had received stern warnings and written advisories.
The charges caused Tang "stress and worry", and she was worried it would break up her marriage, affect her custody of her son and her employment.
The judge said the public service has expended "tremendous resources" in fighting the pandemic.
"More than a year after these offences were committed, the fight against COVID-19 continues," he said.
However, he noted that Tang was not the primary offender who had access to the confidential information and originated the leak.
Zhao is due back in court for a further mention of her case in September.