How to Investigate Whistleblowing Complaints with OSINT

By Blackdot Solutions

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    It has been more than a decade since Edward Snowden brought mass global attention to the concept of whistleblowing, and the intervening years have seen numerous high profile cases make the news. The Danske Bank scandal, for example, saw a whistleblower and former employee expose a colossal $234 billion money laundering scheme. Last year in 2022, a whistleblower leaked data from Credit Suisse with evidence of accounts linked to money laundering, corruption, drug trafficking, and other serious crimes. On the fraud front, the US government has recognised whistleblowers’ contribution to detecting the “misuse and abuse of taxpayer funds” in COVID-19 fraud.  

    The recognition that whistleblowers contribute to transparency and accountability has driven regulatory changes for their protection. In Europe, the 2019 Whistleblowing Directive outlines a framework for legal protections designed to protect individuals who act in the public interest. Member states were meant to adopt the directive by December 2021, though some countries lag behind – Germany, for example, passed the German Whistleblowing Protection Act in May 2023. Across the Channel, the UK government has launched a review of its own regulatory whistleblowing framework. And in the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) provides monetary awards to whistleblowers whose information leads to enforcement cases of over $1 million. This year it doled out the largest award since the programme’s start in 2011 — a tremendous $279 million. 

    Against the backdrop of this recognition, it’s more vital than ever that firms prioritise whistleblowing accountability and transparency within their organisations. Having robust systems in place, including policies and procedures for investigating whistleblowing, helps ensure a compliant culture where potential issues can be identified and corrected promptly. This blog explores how technology and tools that use open source intelligence (OSINT) can play a vital role in detecting misconduct and effectively handling whistleblowing cases when they arise. 

    Whistleblowing opportunities and challenges

    Why is whistleblowing useful?

    Whistleblowing has proven vital for financial institutions and corporations – it has been the catalyst for investigations that revealed corruption and severe criminal failures to adhere to regulations. Additionally, whistleblowers have long been recognised as protecting the integrity of the financial sector and the broader public interest. Leaks like the Panama Papers in 2016 have helped transform public awareness of financial crime issues, focusing on nefarious activities in the offshore finance industry. Similarly, the Pandora Papers, released in 2021, made global headlines as one of the biggest leaks of tax haven data in history and brought the topic of tax evasion into the public discourse. The impacts of the leak are still being felt today, with the UK government recently asking those named in the Pandora Papers to correct their tax affairs before it takes punitive action. The availability of these types of leaked records has greatly influenced the due diligence process, becoming a standard check for many firms when conducting screening. In conjunction, whistleblowers have aided with more specific cases involving financial crimes, by identifying illegal activity such as wildlife trafficking or forced labour.

    Within firms, whistleblowing can help organisations identify issues early on, such as problems in complex supply chains that might otherwise go unnoticed. For instance, employees could help identify activity that breaches the requirements of the new German Supply Chain Due Diligence Act, which mandates compliance with environmental and human rights standards in supply chains. Other examples include the European Parliament’s new due diligence requirements to ban products derived from deforested lands, or the US Treasury’s Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which prohibits goods from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. In a climate where regulation is becoming more stringent, having whistleblowers as an early warning mechanism can lead to proactive and thematic investigations, eventually improving effectiveness measures and overall compliance.

    Common challenges in whistleblowing cases

    Despite these benefits, there are inherent difficulties with handling whistleblowing cases. For example, maintaining confidentiality can prove challenging, as individuals that share sensitive details may be privy to confidential information and their identity can sometimes be inferred from the specific facts they disclose. Once notified of information, executing unbiased and rigorous investigations is also difficult. Striking a balance between transparency and whistleblowers’ privacy is difficult and takes careful consideration. Whistleblowing investigations can also take up an exceptional amount of resources, especially if they involve multiple jurisdictions where firms must navigate divergent regulations and laws.

    How to demonstrate accountability through effective investigations

    Establishing a culture of accountability

    Organisations and financial institutions upholding a culture of accountability must take clear steps towards protecting whistleblowers. This includes developing and implementing robust policies for whistleblowing, including clear reporting channels. Where does an employee go if they see something of concern? How will confidentiality be maintained? Who will be involved? What is the timeline? The available support and protections should be transparent and consistent, and timely communication should be emphasised. Because employees may be fearful of losing their jobs, a non-retaliation policy should clearly outline their protection from adverse actions such as termination, demotion, harassment, or discrimination.

    Ensuring thorough, effective investigations

    During the investigation phase of a whistleblowing incident, where an organisation looks into a whistleblower’s claims, adequate resources for an effective investigation must be allocated. An effective investigation is paramount to demonstrate accountability as evidence is gathered to establish the truth, the rights of all parties involved are protected, individuals are held accountable, and future misconduct is prevented. If claims are taken seriously and rigorously investigated, this helps an organisation maintain its integrity and encourages other whistleblowers to step up. Thorough investigations require sufficient resources — this  includes any external groups or third parties needed to conduct an unbiased inquiry and protect the integrity of the research. Additionally, technological tools and OSINT should be employed to gather information and help glean a fuller understanding of the claim.

    Because whistleblowing is often the first step that sounds the alarm to an area of concern, it’s crucial that claims are suitably investigated and substantiated. For whistleblowers to feel comfortable with coming forward and risking their jobs and reputation, they must be confident that an investigation will happen and that the risk they bear won’t be in vain. This makes it paramount that whistleblowing cases are handled with careful consideration from the initial stages to the conclusion, where a resolution is reached.

    OSINT and whistleblowing

    OSINT can play an instrumental role in the preemptive detection and proactive management of threats that can lead to whistleblowing. By scanning and monitoring multiple online sources, firms can identify early warning signs of misconduct or malpractice prior to a whistleblower stepping forward. OSINT investigators can look through corporate records and public statements, social media profiles, and media articles to flag potential issues that can trigger an investigation. They can also use technological resources to continuously monitor for threats to catch issues in their infancy.

    In a scenario where a whistleblower has already lodged a complaint, OSINT can be used during the investigation phase to collect and analyse data and information to corroborate the whistleblower’s claims. This output can either support or challenge a whistleblower’s concerns, and can be used as evidence as part of a thorough, transparent investigation. For example, in a procurement fraud case where a whistleblower alleges an employee is awarding contracts to their friends or relatives’ companies, open sources such as company filings or social media profiles could prove the connection. 

    How OSINT can help with whistleblowing

    Preemptive detection: by detecting early warning signs of misconduct, OSINT can help firms identify and resolve issues before a whistleblower needs to step forward.

    Proactive management: by contributing to a rigorous investigation of a whistleblowing complaint, OSINT can help firms investigate claims more thoroughly and give them a more comprehensive view of the situation. 

    Culture: proactively integrating OSINT into whistleblowing procedures proves to regulators, partners and employees that a firm takes its compliance and whistleblowing obligations seriously and will treat concerns with appropriate rigour. It can also encourage employees to speak up by demonstrating the right ‘tone from the top’.

    OSINT is part of a broader toolkit for piecing together a comprehensive understanding of a complex situation. When combined with traditional investigation methods, OSINT can help bolster the credibility and thoroughness of the entire process, ensuring fairness and accountability.

    Using OSINT technology to support whistleblowing investigations

    OSINT solutions like Blackdot’s Videris help firms streamline their research and investigation in a single interface. It allows investigators to centralise open source intelligence investigations and quickly identify relevant information to substantiate or refute whistleblower’s claims.

    Integrating data sources

    Videris allows investigators to search across multiple disparate data sources (e.g. search engines, news and social media, corporate records) to quickly identify relevant information on their subject. Teams can integrate internal or curated data sources and analyse all data in the same, secure interface.

    Analytical tools

    With AI capabilities that screen high data volumes and rank sources for relevance, investigators can speed up their processes and improve investigation outcomes. Visualisation tools and automatic connection mapping facilitate network analysis, so that investigators can make sense of the data and identify key insights.

    Understanding data provenance

    When reporting on the results of an investigation, it’s vital that investigators know where the data behind their decisions has come from. Videris automatically retains sourcing for every piece of data in an investigation and logs each step of an investigation, so that evidence is at the investigator’s fingertips.

    If you’d like to understand how Videris can help your organisation play a preemptive or proactive role in whistleblowing, book a demo today.

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