Drilling into Panama Papers to expose financial scandal

The software behind the exposure of a financial scandal was supplied by an Irishman’s firm, writes Joe Leogue.
Drilling into Panama Papers to expose financial scandal

It may now seem like a lifetime ago, but before Trump and Brexit stole the limelight, the revelations contained within the Panama Papers were early contenders for the story of 2016.

The reports that emerged from the huge cache of leaked documents showed the world how the rich exploited offshore tax havens to squirrel away billions, but the story that went global was also an ample demonstration of the power of a piece of software developed by a firm headed by an Irishman.

The fact that the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) was able to sift through the 11.4m files to bring the story to light was due in no small part to Nuix — a program developed to index and extract information from unstructured data.

The Australian-based Nuix company is headed by Corkman Eddie Sheehy. The former Presentation College pupil from Magazine Rd graduated from UCC with a degree in Commerce and a Masters in Finance before leaving for London in 1993 to work in banking.

Three years later, he left London, and joined Nuix in 2006, where he is now CEO.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Mr Sheehy said Nuix has a “simple but sophisticated” philosophy.

“It’s our job to show investigators or journalists all the information they are looking for in the least number of clicks so as to make it as easy as possible to find the evidence that they want,” Mr Sheehy says.

“We use a lot of graphics, we will also extract the types of information that we think people are interested in. For example, we will have extracted all the company names, all the money figures, all the IT addresses, all the email addresses, all the credit card details from documents.

“We will have extracted all the images, we will have noted all the websites that were there, telephone and fax numbers.

“So everything that came from the Cayman Islands can be very quickly filtered down to the Cayman Island IP addresses or any documents that refer to the Cayman Islands.

“For example, if you found a document you were interested in, we could then show you that the document was actually originally a non-text searchable PDF that was attached to an email, but that there were six other versions of that document, some of them in a word document and they were all attached to a large number of emails that were sent back and forth between a bunch of people.”

Nuix looks at the binary data behind each document to extract and catalogue the information, he said.

Nuix aims to be intuitive for users, Mr Sheehy says . For example, the ICIJ journalists were able to use the interface ‘out of the box’ without any adaptations of the software needed.

“We’ve been associated with the ICIJ now for almost five years and this isn’t the first time that they’ve used our software on cases,” says Mr Sheehy. “It’s a long-term relationship. Gerard Ryle, who runs ICIJ, is also Irish but lived in Australia for a long time before going to Washington to run the ICIJ.”

While the Panama Papers was one of the largest hauls of information for any one story in the history of journalism, Mr Sheehy said that given Nuix’s use in legal and regulatory issues, the story was an “average-sized case” for the company.

“Our bread and butter would be exactly like the Panama Papers activity, in that there were 11.5m documents on lots of different formats, some of them were images or non-text searchable documents, there was 2.6 terabytes of data in total,” says Mr Sheehy.

“Our biggest case was four billion documents. There were 3.1bn emails, 460m Word documents, 330m Excel files, and a bunch of other stuff. The bigger the volume of data, the more sophisticated the setup you have to have to be able to deal with that volume. But the Panama Papers for us was a typical case. We go from the very small to the exceptionally large.”

While Nuix is now world-famous for its ability investigating past wrongdoing, Mr Sheehy said that its future lies in preventing it from ever happening in the future.

“The reason why we are so fast and so scaleable is that we look at data in the binary form — ones and zeros,” he says. “We have been able to build up our knowledge of the forensic artefacts that you find in hard drives and operating systems so that we can link things together really efficiently and effectively.

“When you can do that, and when you look at it, it’s just data in the end, you grow into an ability to do a lot of very sophisticated activities on computers that you wouldn’t otherwise to be able to do.

“We can use our software to stop computer viruses or hackers from getting into networks. When they’re in networks, they’ve gotten past firewalls or the earlier levels of defence, we can monitor them and help remediate the situation once they’ve been identified because of our understanding of data.

“The volume of data is increasing for all types of investigations, and increasingly law enforcement organisations want to be able to search not just the case that they’re looking at, but evidence or information that they may have in historical cases that may reflect on their current case.

“They are going to be doing bigger cases, but they are also going to need to drill down into hard drives and other devices in real time to stop malicious activity.”

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