Fury at HIV data leak in conservative Singapore

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SINGAPORE, Feb 10, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – Rico has lived with HIV for almost a
decade, confiding in only a small number of people in socially conservative
Singapore, fearful of the reaction. Last month, he got a phone call saying
information about his condition had been published online.

Rico was one of 14,200 people whose HIV status, name and address were
dumped on the internet by an American man who is believed to have obtained
the confidential data from his partner — a senior Singaporean doctor.

“The LGBT community is angry and frustrated with the entire ordeal,” said
Rico, who did not want to be identified by his full name.

The 31-year-old told AFP he was frightened that “the leaked information may
change people’s perception of me”, adding that he had not told all his
friends he was HIV-positive.

“Society may be tolerant to the LGBT community but I do not think they are
ready to accept a gay and HIV-positive individual. Not in my lifetime,” he
said.

While Singapore is modern in many ways, observers say social attitudes have
not progressed at the same pace as economic development and are often highly
conservative, as in other parts of Asia.

Those in Singapore with HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — have long
complained of prejudice and campaigners say the negative reaction to the data
breach has highlighted the stigma.

A human resources manager working in the hospitality industry was quoted in
local paper the Straits Times as saying she would sack any of her staff if
their names were among those published.

The virus is usually transmitted through sex or sharing of needles and
cannot be spread via casual contact, such as shaking hands or hugging.

Foreigners with HIV were for many years not allowed to set foot in
Singapore at all. In 2015, authorities lifted the ban on foreigners with the
virus making short visits but those seeking to work in Singapore must still
pass a test.

The affluent city-state of 5.6 million people is home to many overseas
workers, from wealthy bankers to labourers at construction sites.

– Widespread consternation –

The leak, which involved the data of 5,400 Singaporeans and 8,800
foreigners, has caused widespread consternation. Sumita Banerjee, executive
director of NGO Action for AIDS (AFA), said people with the virus had been
calling up her group in tears.

“One of the main concerns is that employers, friends and family who were
not aware might react badly,” she told AFP, adding some were afraid of losing
their jobs.

But according to guidelines from health authorities, there are generally no
valid grounds for terminating the services of an HIV-positive employee simply
due to their condition.

Singapore authorities say they have rushed to block access to the
information that was dumped online, allegedly by Mikhy Farrera Brochez,
although they have warned he still has it and could release it again.

Since the leak, local media has reported Brochez was arrested in the United
States for allegedly trespassing in his mother’s home, although the case
appears unconnected to the data breach.

Speaking to the Straits Times, he protested his innocence and described
reports about him as “terribly nasty and inaccurate”.

HIV-positive psychologist Brochez first arrived in the city-state in 2008
and used blood samples from his boyfriend, doctor Ler Teck Siang, to pass an
HIV test and get a work permit.

He allegedly obtained the data of HIV-positive people from Ler, who had
access to the official HIV registry.

In May 2016, police seized documents, a laptop and mobile phones during
searches of Brochez’s and Ler’s apartments after receiving information that
the American may be in possession of confidential data.

Brochez was subsequently jailed for lying about his HIV status, using fake
degree certificates to get work, and taking drugs.

He was deported from Singapore in 2018, but unknown to authorities, he was
still in possession of the HIV data, which he later released.

Authorities have not offered any explanation as to why Brochez leaked the
data.

The government has come under fire for the leak, the second major data
breach disclosed within the space of a few months — last year, health
records of about 1.5 million Singaporeans were stolen in a suspected state-
sponsored hack.

In a statement, the health ministry said that the “wellbeing” of those
affected by the HIV data leak was their “priority” and support was being
offered.

But for Rico, the damage has already been done, and he fears some people
with HIV will now refuse to seek treatment due to safety concerns.

“I will not be surprised if the fear drives people underground,” he said.

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