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Monday, 4 December 2017

Some random thoughts on Damian Green and those porn allegations

If you live in the UK then you might have noticed the somewhat bizarre furore over Damian Green MP and his alleged viewing of pornography on house his Parliament computer. Now, I don't know for certain if he did or didn't, but to put it in context his private email address also allegedly turned up in the Ashley Madison leak and on top of that there are sexual harassment allegations too. But let's stick to the porn for now.

Anybody who has been involved in forensic investigations of computers may well understand these comments:

Mr Lewis, who retired from the Metropolitan Police in 2014, said although "you can't put fingers on a keyboard", a number of factors meant that he was sure it was Mr Green, the MP for Ashford, Kent, who was accessing the pornographic material.

His analysis of the way the computer had been used left the former detective constable in "no doubt whatsoever" that it was Mr Green, who was then an opposition immigration spokesman but is now the first secretary of state.

"The computer was in Mr Green's office, on his desk, logged in, his account, his name," said Mr Lewis, who at the time was working as a computer forensics examiner for SO15, the counter-terrorism command.

"In between browsing pornography, he was sending emails from his account, his personal account, reading documents... it was ridiculous to suggest anybody else could have done it."  
To put this into context - the computer was seized in 2008 when Green was arrested over the suspected leaking of confidential material. Any investigation such as that will look at web browsing history, recently accessed or saved documents, cookies, bookmarks and stored documents and images. So, it is utterly credibly that the investigation would have found this type of activity if it had occurred.

Indeed, there seems to be no denial that this material had been accessed on the computer, but that Mr Green had not done so. But Mr Lewis's statement also says that things such as private email were accessed concurrently. If you were carrying out an investigation on behalf of a business, then this would indeed be enough to "place fingers on a keyboard".

But here is the surprise - why would this material be accessible at all? Nobody has claimed that it was not accessed, just that Mr Green himself did not access it. But any reasonably-sized business would usually have some sort of filter to stop this happening.

The House of Commons by itself employs over 2000 people. Add to that the staff of the House of Lords, the Lords themselves, MPs and other staff who are not directly employed by either House then you are looking at thousands of employees. That's quite a large organisation, and if there is no effective web filtering for any of them, then that introduces a serious security risk.

Anybody who works in IT in a relatively large organisation such as this will know that at least some of them will try to access pornography. My experience is that people who do this on their work computers are exclusively male, and there are 453 male MPs in the House of Commons. This is certainly a large enough group for some of them to be accessing porn, at least some of the time/

So we can surmise a couple of things - it certainly seems to be possible to access porn from a Parliament computer, and given the number of people working there it seems likely that somebody would try. The number of male MPs certainly seems enough for one of those to try to access porn. Given that it is likely that some of them try, there's no particular reason why it shouldn't be Damian Green. And if one MP is fired from his job because of porn, then you can bet there are other MPs who have done the same thing.

But why not implement some sort of filtering? The problem is that MPs are not employees - Parliament is the primary legislative body in the UK and it is essentially sovereign (despite there being a Queen). Imagine that you worked in an organisation where there were hundreds of C-level executives, and then try to police them from an IT point of view. MPs are probably amongst the worst users in the world to support.

As I said, most organisation of any size filter porn from corporate computers. Strategically, the main reason to do that is not to track down and fire errant employees, but to prevent embarrassment to that organisation. It's all very well to fire a low-level employee for viewing smut, but when it comes to the top of the food chain such terminations can also be damaging to the reputation of the organisation itself. If Parliament isn't filtering this sort of material then it is always likely to end up with this sort of scenario from time-to-time.

Mr Lewis's comments indicate that the material was found on the computer itself, not a proxy log or other external system. It's quite possible that whoever was accessing the material on Mr Green's computer could have saved themselves a lot of grief if they'd used private browsing (although a deep forensic investigation can often find artifacts even when this has happened).

Also, Nadine Dorries MP did state that she shared her password with staff who worked for her. This is terrible practice, and certainly in my organisation if you share your password and somebody abuses it, then you are liable for anything that they did.

Don't forget as well, the habit of porn sites infecting visitors with malware though malicious advertisements, and the habit of more "specialist" sites having been created specifically to infect visitor's computers. MPs might not think themselves to be important enough to hack, but they will have private correspondence with constituents and other parties that should remain private.. and not be leaked out.

Whatever the truth of Damian Green's surfing habits, it looks like Parliament is badly in need of proper regulation of its computer systems. But you really do have the nightmare users from hell in that job. I suspect it is going to take something more that one embarrassed MP to force a change.

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