Leaks 2020: offshore data leaks proliferate amid government secrecy

by | Feb 17, 2020 | Government

Hackers, leakers and whistle-blowers are shedding light on corrupt governments and corporations around the world. Data journalist, Kim Prince, looks at the rise of “offshore leaks”.

At the dawn of the third decade of the 21st century, something inevitable is brewing. Trust in politics is at an all-time low as multi-national tax avoidance reaches new heights. Bush fires have made climate change impossible to ignore, but rational debate has been sidelined by denial.

There is deep suspicion about large government contracts – think Paladin, water sales – but key details remain steadfastly hidden from the public. Legislation is used more and more to restrict scrutiny of government, and simultaneously to increase surveillance of the people.

In many ways it seems that the fusion of business and politics is complete, that politicians may act with impunity, and that fraud and corruption can only flourish in the wake of such egregious examples. For some though, this is simply not good enough.

Across the globe, thousands of people are shedding light on the darkest corners of white-collar society. They are the hackers, leakers and whistle blowers whose conscience drives them to exfiltrate data. They are the data distributors, who must act quickly to avoid censorship.

They are the researchers and journalists, including citizen journalists, who won’t let the story die. And they show now signs of being deterred. The world of exfiltration, entirely opaque and hermetically sealed, includes the enigmas John Doe, Phineas Fisher, the eponymous Anonymous, and many others. While some of these entities have stated intentions, their future is far from clear.

By comparison, the world of data distribution, analysis and reporting, is more straightforward. As we roll into the new decade, here are four exciting players to watch.

International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)

Based in Washington, D.C., the ICIJ is a network of investigative journalists and media organisations spanning 70 countries. It was spun out of a US-based independent watchdog group in 2017.

Availed of the Panama Papers in 2016, the ICIJ took global cross-border investigative journalism to a new level. It broke new ground for data journalism too, demonstrating with great effect the power of the “graph database” — a technology that stores, retrieves and displays information in a manner which is fundamentally compatible with the way humans think.

Since the onslaught of Panama Papers reporting, the ICIJ have continued to break global stories including a deep dive into the harm caused by inadequate testing in the medical devices industry. And most recently, laying bare the unscrupulous deals that made Isobel dos Santos Africa’s most wealthy woman, at the expense of Angola, one of Africa’s poorest countries.

It is with some gloom that I confess my fandom for the ICIJ. Only a small fraction of the data they receive is publicly released. While they do a herculean job of mining it, nothing competes with internet-scale exposure. It would be a net gain if the full troves were opened to public scrutiny.

Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)

Founded in 2006 by veteran journalists Drew Sullivan and Paul Radu, the OCCRP are the very definition of quiet achievers. Working to turn the table on corruption, they connect 45 non-profit investigative centers in 34 countries. Their highest aim is for the stories they produce to

“give citizens and governments the information and tools … to bring about a fair system in which criminality and injustice are fought with transparency, knowledge, and empowerment”.

Co-founder Drew Sullivan explains what shapes the OCCRP.

While their focus is Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, Central Asia and Central America, they pursue it with such individual zeal and collective rigour that they reset the bar for data journalism and cross-border investigations globally. Aleph, the technology platform developed by OCCRP as open source software, is an outstanding byproduct of the team’s approach.

It slurps up huge data dumps, no matter how disordered or arcane, and helps investigators understand them in everyday terms such as “legal entity”, “bank account”, “contract”, or “court case”.

In their work, the OCCRP have uncovered at least four massive laundromats (global vehicles for money laundering).

They worked closely with the ICIJ on the Panama Papers, and most recently coordinated journalists globally to report on the now infamous Formations House data leak.

Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoSecrets)

DDoSecrets describe themselves as “a transparency collective, aimed at enabling the free transmission of data in the public interest”.

Established in 2018, they are relative newcomers, but they are fierce and, with skills eclectic, have already brought to light two major troves. In 2019, it was DDoSecrets who received the Formations House leak, aka #29 Leaks. They agreed an embargo with the OCCRP to allow journalists early access, then released the data worldwide in December. The Formations House revelations reverberated around the globe, and there are many more stories still waiting to be told. I know this from firsthand experience.

Also in late 2019, DDoSecrets published the Sherwood leak, a gargantuan leak of data from the Isle of Man branch of the Cayman National Bank and Trust. This data is a goldmine, still in the early stages of exploitation. Its global relevance is obvious, however based on my own analysis, it is particularly important to the UK. It appears to contain evidence of widespread tax avoidance.

Somewhat of a wildcard, DDoSecrets punch well above their weight and are a boon to researchers and journalists alike. You can download a wide range of data from their website, either directly or via torrent, or search and browse it at the Hunter Memorial Library.

Wikileaks

Like a startled wallaby hitting a newly constructed fence, Wikileaks were quick to find the limits of US government scrutiny. In the process, they revealed something about related governments too. In particular, they have shown just how quietly and still the Australian government can sit while issues of press freedom threaten its citizens.

In a tangible, countable number of ways, Wikileaks have been the undisputed trailblazer of data leaks. Offshore secrets make up only a small fraction of the data they publish however no rundown on data leaks would be complete without them.

The Decade Ahead

Notwithstanding a global shock, it seems likely that neoliberalism, populism and fake news will continue to shape the politico-business landscape. Conditions will remain ripe for fraud and corruption, and the data leaks supply chain will inevitably come under pressure from a range of state and non-state actors.

Will journalists around the world recant in the face of such pressure? Will the hackers, leakers and whistle blowers – individuals who are offended by the standards of today – back down? Or will they redouble their efforts, become more skilled, more targeted, more specialised, and ultimately, more effective?

The above article was republished from Kim’s blog #Follow the Money.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kim Prince

Kim Prince

Kim Prince is a freelance software and technology professional with a strong anti-fraud, anti-corruption bias. He has worked in a wide range of industries throughout the Asia-Pacific region including publishing and distribution, telecommunications, insurance, events and hospitality. He is an advocate for responsible transparency in business and government, and sees data journalism as an important part of the way forward.

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