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April 10, 2016

The Panama Papers: the technology that drives investigative journalism By: Enrique Dans  





Most media coverage of the Panama Papers, the biggest leak of confidential information ever at some 2.6 Terabytes, and 11.5 million documents, has focused on the possible illegal activities of people using tax havens to stash cash or the political fallout. From my perspective, what I find interesting about the whole affair is the technical dimension and the complexities involved in carrying out such an operation. After receiving the papers, one of


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Germany’s leading dailies, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, contacted the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists(ICIJ), a small but highly efficient not-for-profit organization with a Data & Research Unit run by Spain’s Mar Cabra. The ICIJ’s credibility is based on its work in uncovering other tax evasion schemes, such as the Offshore Leaks, the Luxembourg Leaks, or the Swiss Leaks. It uses open source software, and in the case of the Panama Papers, is allowed to use licensed software free of charge by its owners, given the importance of the story and the possibilities to derive interesting learning experiences from such a challenging project. 






The first thing required to be done in a case like this is to establish the veracity of the documents, and then to order them and then to find partners around the world that want to publish them, which might not necessarily be the biggest newspapers. Access to the information is free of charge, and all that is required is a commitment to dedicate the necessary resources. 





The role of collaborating media is essential: it’s simply not possible to carry out an investigation without an understanding of the context of each country or without access to other sources of information outside the data base, such archives or public registries. Anybody who thinks that the role of the media is simply to publish an exclusive on the basis of looking into the data base is ignoring the reality of trying to navigate this ocean of information. Once a newspaper has received documents they must be prepared: in a case like this, we’re talking about text that can be processed, once their relevance has been established, but much of it will be of no interest. 





But pdfs and .pst files all have to be uncompressed, electronically scanned with an OCR program and checked, one by one. To do this as quickly as possible, some thirty servers working in parallel were required. After the database was ordered, the journalists could finally start work: in previous cases, such as Wikileaks, data was sent by hard drive or through software that only allowed for thread conversations. In this case, the information was sent by modifying a social network that allowed for more fluid conversation. Google Authenticator was used to login via a two-stage verification process. 





Once in, Nuix, a document management software used by law firms to navigate complex cases, was used to search the database. Nuix is expensive, but the company ceded a number of licenses, bearing in mind the importance of the case and the improvements to the system using it would bring. There’s a story about this on Nuix’s blog. 





Linkurious was used to create connections between documents and to visualize them. 

Linkurious is another licensed software that worked free of charge and that has also written about its role on its blog. In short, a highly sophisticated architecture of servers operating from the cloud has been set up, all encrypted, all with double authentication and using the most sophisticated analysis software available to trawl through this vast amount of information that can eventually be turned into news stories by the newspapers concerned. This requires a new breed of journalist, able to expertly manage information, many of them trained by the ICIJ, and using a very different skill set to most journalists. 





 As the 21st century rolls on, journalism seems to be falling in to two main camps: investigative media that increasingly uses data analysis to publish the stuff that others don’t want them to publish, in line with George Orwell’s famously attributed dictum; and in the second category, entertainment, PR,listicles, clickbait or spam. A journalist needs to know how to use tools that few journalism schools bother to teach. If we are to live in transparent societies, then investigative journalism needs to be protected and encouraged. 


The Panama Papers are a sign of the times: they will change how business is done, because anything that isn’t reasonably transparent already will now have to be so, and they will also change journalism, as well as the laws that currently govern it. But above all, their publication has required an incredible effort and the use of systems and technology that our universities need to start teaching now.

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