SINGAPORE, Feb 13 — Health Minister Gan Kim Yong yesterday rejected allegations that his ministry sought to cover up the leak of Singapore’s HIV Registry, although it decided against going public about the breach twice in 2016 and 2018.
It is arguable that the Ministry of Health (MOH) should have made a different judgement call, Gan acknowledged.
But each time — including in January this year, when the authorities finally announced the data leak — the MOH’s primary concern was the well-being of persons with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) on the registry, he said.
In May 2016, the MOH first discovered that American Mikhy K. Farrera Brochez had access to confidential data from the HIV Registry. The police raided the premises of Brochez and his Singaporean partner Ler Teck Siang, who had access to the HIV Registry when he was head of the MOH’s National Public Health Unit from March 2012 to May 2013.
The MOH decided at the time that going public would not serve the interests of affected individuals.
The second occasion
Then in May 2018, Brochez — who was back in the United States after being deported — sent a screenshot of 31 records from the HIV Registry to several government authorities. The MOH decided to only alert the 31 individuals “as there was still no specific evidence that Brochez had more information beyond these 31 records,” said Gan in response to questions from Members of Parliament.
Judgement calls and disclosure in January
It only went public in January this year when it learnt that Brochez had publicly leaked the confidential records of 14,200 HIV-positive individuals, along with 2,400 of their contacts.
When the news broke, some observers said that the ministry should have gone public as soon as it ascertained the extent of the leak in May 2016, even with the interests of the affected individuals in mind.
Yesterday, Gan said that his medical colleagues at MOH had emphasised the need to pay attention to HIV patients’ concerns and needs.
“A person’s HIV status is a deeply emotional and personal matter. Some patients will experience high anxiety and distress from a disclosure or announcement. Some will feel compelled to reveal their HIV status to family members or friends. Relationships can be disrupted; lives can be changed,” Gan added.
In addition, on the first two occasions, there was no evidence that the information had been disseminated to the public.
“The police search was extensive and all relevant material found had been seized or deleted. While there could be no guarantee, MOH had good reason to believe that the information had been secured and the risk of future exposure significantly mitigated,” Gan added.
“Ultimately, it was a judgment call — to be made based on the information we had, the considerations for and against an announcement, and the assessed risk of future public exposure of the information. MOH judged that on balance, an announcement then would not serve the interests of the affected individuals, when weighed against the inevitable anxiety and distress they would experience.”
Gan also revealed that in the wake of the announcement in January, a few parties told the MOH that Brochez tried to contact them in 2018, giving them links to the confidential information he had uploaded online. The links have since been disabled.
This information was similar to what the ministry found in January, so no new individuals have been exposed, Mr Gan assured the House.
“We have also been working with relevant parties to scan the Internet for indication of further sharing of the information. There have thus far been no signs of further disclosure, but we will continue to monitor,” he said.
Asked by Dr Lim Wee Kiak, MP for Sembawang, if Brochez had tried to blackmail the individuals, Gan said Brochez was not very consistent in his communication with them and that it was hard to fathom his motives.
“So far, we’ve not received any complaints or feedback on blackmail or threats from our patients or contacts, so I think I probably should not go too much into the mechanism and process as this is part of ongoing police investigations,” Gan added.
Any general policy on infroming public?
Nominated MP Walter Theseira asked if the authorities should develop a general policy on telling the public about such incidents, in order to “enhance transparency and public trust in the government.”
He said: “I agree that in this case, the Government had to make a very difficult decision to balance transparency with the interests of those affected, and I don’t wish to second-guess that decision. But I fear that without a general Government policy on the issue, the Government will find it difficult to effectively rebut claims or conspiracy theories about the Government’s lack of transparency.”
In response, Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, said it would be “very, very difficult” to have general rules that will strike the right balance. He cited as an example the difficulties that MOH encountered while making its judgment calls.
However, the public sector has general guidelines on the handling of data, training of officers and protocols.
“(This includes) the considerations that should be taken into account after an incident occurs with respect to affected individuals, processes of agencies and the broader public,” he said.
“It’s not like there are no guidelines. It’s not a vacuum. There is quite a lot of thought, consideration and processes that are in place.” — TODAY