The British Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is in the grip of a massive public backlash following its search for the Hancock scandal whistleblower, The Sun reports.
On Thursday, ICO officers raided two homes in the south of England, seizing computer equipment and electronic devices as part of a probe into the leaking of CCTV footage of former UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock kissing an aide in his office.
The Sun published the image in late June, in what was followed by Hancock's resignation as he apologised for breaking COVID-19 social distancing restrictions with the kiss — but not for cheating on his wife with a married woman.
The newspaper's editor, Victoria Newton, said The Sun acted quickly after being "contacted by an angry whistleblower" on 23 June who "claimed to have irrefutable evidence that the married secretary of state for health was breaching his own lockdown rules by having an office affair with an aide".
She added that she would "rather go to jail than hand the name of [the whistleblower] over".
The ICO, for its part, says that it is conducting the inquiry into the leak, which runs counter to the Data Protection Act. According to the UK's data watchdog, the Department of Health and Social Care as well as the security and property management firm Emcor had submitted a complaint, alleging that the CCTV stills showing Hancock's kisses had been taken without permission.
Steve Eckersley, the ICO's director of investigations, underscored that: "It's vital that all people, which includes the employees of government departments and members of the public who interact with them, have trust and confidence in the protection of their personal data".
"In these circumstances, the ICO aims to react swiftly and effectively to investigate where there is a risk that other people may have unlawfully obtained personal data. We have an ongoing investigation and will not be commenting further until it is concluded", he added.
Local politicians, campaigners, and voters, however, were quick to accuse the ICO of overreacting, with Labour Shadow Security Minister Conor McGinn insisting that even though "any illegality must be investigated", the government should "ensure that whistleblowers can continue to play their vital part in the keeping organisations accountable".
The same tone was struck by Julian Knight, Tory leader of the Commons Culture, Media, and Sport Committee, who said that he cannot comment on the ICO investigation, but that "freedom of the press and their ability where necessary to act in the public interest is a cornerstone of our democracy and we endanger it at our peril".
The Sun also cited Sam Armstrong, of the Henry Jackson Society think tank, as calling the ICO's actions "a heavy-handed attempt by a bureaucratic agency to intimidate the source of a story in the public interest".
Mick Hume, a free speech campaigner, went even further by arguing that the ICO "is acting more like a Stasi police dog, launching morning raids on people's homes and impounding personal computers in its desperation to hunt down the whistleblower".
"The Sun's exposure of the arrogant double standards of a government minister, who thought strict rules he imposed on others did not apply to him, is in the best tradition of public interest journalism", Hume noted.