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Damian Green: are ‘thousands of porn images’ on his PC a smoking gun?

Damian Green
Headline figures: it wouldn't take long to get thousands of thumbnails

The First Secretary of State, Damian Green, this morning stands accused of having “thousands” of pornographic images stored on his House of Commons computer. Anyone reading that headline might well jump to the conclusion that Mr Green has something of an addiction – and that might well be the case. On the other hand, it’s perfectly plausible that Mr Green hasn’t done much or anything ‘wrong’ at all.

The accusations come from a former police officer, who was tasked with searching Mr Green’s computer as part of a separate investigation in 2008. He claims that the computer contained “thousands” of thumbnail images of (legal) pornography, according to the BBC.

The key word here is “thumbnail”, and it’s important to understand how and why your computer stores such images.

We browsers store a “cache” of images and other information from websites, so that they don’t have to constantly reload the same information every time that you visit a site. If you go to the BBC News homepage, for example, and then go back a couple of hours later, it’s perfectly plausible that the thumbnail image of Prince Harry (or whoever’s in the news that day) will have been stored on your computer on the first visit, saving the time and internet bandwidth of reloading the same image on your second visit.

You can get a feel for how much information is cached by your web browser by opening the folder where these temporary internet files are stored. On a Windows PC that uses the Google Chrome browser, for example, you can cut and paste the following into the Windows Explorer address bar to be taken straight to Chrome’s stash of stored internet files:

C:\Users\%username%\AppData\Local\Google\Chrome\User Data\Default\Cache

When you open the folder you’ll see something like this:

Temporary internet files

As you can see, there are lots of little bits of information being stored every minute. Some of those files will be thumbnail images saved from the pages of websites you’ve visited. My internet history from that day in November contains loads of images that I have no recollection of seeing at the time, because the browser is hoovering up all kinds of images and other data that are stored on the page, even stuff you’ve not directly viewed.

So how long would it take to amass thousands of pornographic thumbnail images in your internet history? Not very long at all. I’m not going to show you a porn site homepage as this is a family show, but (I’m, ahem, told) these sites are full of thumbnail images tempting you to click on the many videos they offer.  One visit to such a site could conceivably lead to dozens, if not hundreds, of thumbnail images being stored on your computer.

Now, I’m not saying this completely exonerates Mr Green. The officer interviewed by the BBC claims he’s a computer forensics expert, and he says that Mr Green’s internet history shows that he was viewing such sites in between answering emails and reading documents.

However, the headline claim that Green had “thousands” of such images stored on his computer, is by no means firm evidence in itself that Mr Green spent “hours” surfing pornographic sites.

About the author

Barry Collins

Barry has scribbled about tech for almost 20 years for The Sunday Times, PC Pro, WebUser, Which? and many others. He was once Deputy Editor of Mail Online and remains in therapy to this day.

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