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December 4, 2019

“Interested in data? I’m happy to share.”

John Doe, the anonymous source, was cautious. “You need to understand how dangerous and sensitive some of this information is. My life is in danger, if my identity is revealed,” he or she said in a message to Bastian Obermayer, an investigative journalist with the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Calling him/herself ‘a concerned citizen’, John Doe wanted journalists to report on the material and make the crimes public. There would be no meetings. All communication had be over encrypted channels.

“What is the best way for me to send you a large amount of material?” asked John Doe.

“How much data are we talking about?” replied Obermayer.

“More than anything you have ever seen.”

The largest data leak in history

Opening RiskConnect 2019, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, the two investigative journalists behind the Panama Papers leak, explained how they mined the data trove for insights into the murky world of offshore finance.

What started as a tiny trickle — a small sample, alleging shady dealings in Argentina, Russia and a Siemens slush fund in South America — soon became a 2.6 terabyte torrent. 11.5 million files from the database of a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca.

In 2015, Mossack Fonseca was the world’s fourth largest offshore legal and corporate services firm. Acting on instruction from intermediaries, it incorporated shell companies in offshore jurisdictions, and acted as a registered agent for more than 200,000 companies.

In so doing, it enabled end-clients to hold property and bank accounts anonymously. This included politically exposed persons or PEPs, sanctioned individuals, businesspeople, fraudsters, organised crime syndicates and celebrities.

What came to be known as the Panama Papers contained millions of Mossack Fonseca e-mails, documents of incorporation for shell companies, scans of passports and details on real ultimate beneficial owners.

“The Panama Papers are not so much about names, but about schemes. Systems of fraud and sanctions-busting all around the world. And systems can be changed.” Frederik Obermaier.

Asking for help

The Panama Papers leak was certainly large compared with WikiLeaks’ troves, which contained hundreds of thousands of documents. Or even the Edward Snowden leak, which may be around 1.5 million documents or around 60 gigabytes. No-one knows for sure. The philosophy of data holds that more is good. Yet much more is even better. But can you have too much of a good thing? Is there ever too much data?

“Every time we searched the data, we found a story. We had the data of 214,000 companies. Potentially every single company was a story,” said Obermayer.

“We had white boards in our office to record leads. Soon we ran out of white boards. Our whole office was full of them. Leads are the beginning of a story. This would have been a lifetime’s work. It was too many stories for us our newspaper,” added Frederik Obermaier.

“The sheer amount of data was very good for us because of the stories. But it was also bad for us because we are not computer nerds.” — Bastian Obermayer

Journalists and underwriters work with limited indicators, but potentially vast amounts of data. Sometimes it’s hard to spot the signals for all the noise, and turn data into insight. Perhaps it was time to ask for help?

International collaboration

Russian, Icelandic, Chinese. The Brothers Obermayer/maier didn’t speak all languages. Nor did they know how to conduct investigations in those countries. Then there was the question of context.

“We needed expertise on the ground. You can read data and documents and interview people, but it makes a difference if you speak to people who are actually living and working in the country affected,” explained Obermaier.

“We were so excited when we found five heads of state, because who has a story that involves five heads of state? In the end we had 70.” — Bastian Obermayer

Mexican drug cartels, Ukrainian organised crime groups, family members of Assad appeared in the Papers. There was potential corruption, which was important for the public of those countries but could they really receive the coverage they deserved in a German daily newspaper? This is where the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) came in.

By 2016, almost 400 journalists — ICIJ members from around 80 countries and 100 news organisations — were secretly working on the Panama Papers. Members could share leads and ask for help via an encrypted iHub platform. It was a heady time when the Brothers Obermayer/maier functioned on 3-4 hours sleep. Dozens of new leads from colleagues around the world would come in overnight. Through collaboration, the stories grew and grew.

The world post-Panama Papers

More than 5,000 original stories have been published based on the Panama Papers. Investigations were sparked in more than 80 countries. There have been arrests, protests, resignations and new laws. More than $1.2 billion in back-taxes and penalties has been publicly collected by governments around the world.

Data from the Panama Papers and a number of other offshore leaks are also informing Web Shield services. These include the award-winning AddressReveal as well as the upcoming PayTracer and VCU solutions, which help acquirers, payment service providers, correspondent banks and legal firms identify virtual addresses and fight money laundering.

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