The Impact of Investigative Journalism on OSINT and Financial Crime

By Blackdot Solutions

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    At Blackdot’s recent ‘Future of OSINT’ event, our Head of Community Charles Brown had the pleasure of sitting down with a panel of experts to discuss the impact that investigative journalists, and the open source intelligence (OSINT) they create, have had on the fight against financial crime. 

    Charles was joined by:

    • Simon Bowers: Investigative editor at Finance Uncovered, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his work on the Panama Papers in 2016.
    • Graham Barrow: Director at RiskAlert247, and host of the popular Dark Money Files podcast.
    • Nick Lewis OBE: Managing director of the High Risk Client Unit at Standard Chartered Bank, and decorated former law enforcement officer.

    The following is a summary of some of the key points discussed. You can watch the full recording here, which includes a presentation from our Head of Product, Stuart Clarke, outlining some exciting new product developments coming from Blackdot this year.

    Overview of Investigative Journalism 

    Charles started the event by asking Simon to provide an overview of how some of the projects he has worked on (including the FinCEN Files, LuxLeaks) came to be. 

    The Panama Papers investigation, for example, involved analysing and assessing 11.5 million documents’ worth of information. Simon, along with a team of journalists across the globe, had to find novel ways to collaborate with experts in order to use and make sense of the data, and to identify which stories to follow. 

    ‘Some sources are hard drives with information the size of university libraries on them.’ 

    Simon Bowers

    Simon emphasised that journalists are storytellers at heart and merely gathering information is not enough to help them tell their stories. They also have to be able to analyse and draw relevant insights from that data to form a digestible, accurate narrative. This was a challenge due to the vast volumes of data with which the ICIJ team had to grapple.

    Eventually, once released into the public domain, the stories were pored over by financial crime professionals (in public sector bodies and across industry), and had a profound and lasting impact.

    Lastly, Simon noted how important it is that the USA has less stringent data protection regulations than other places, such as the EU; without the freedom to pull on threads that he and his team find, stories such as the Panama Papers would struggle to be published. 

    The Impact of OSINT and Investigative Journalism on the AFC Community

    The panel then moved to a discussion of the impact that the work undertaken by the ICIJ and OCCRP has had on the day-to-day activities of financial crime investigators.

    At the time of this panel discussion, the OCCRP’s reporting has led to over 611 arrests, almost 400 official investigations and almost 700 governmental interventions.1 Drew Sullivan, co-founder of the OCCRP, recently reported that 50% of cases received by the Kleptocracy Unit at the FBI came from investigative reporting.

    Nick Lewis provided the audience with an overview of how his organisation is turning investigative reporting into open source intelligence, and then using it to identify customer and third party risk. He cautioned, however, that much of what is online is not really ‘intelligence’, and that further processes have had to be put in place to make sure that findings are worth pursuing.

    This is where the ‘intelligence’ in OSINT must be considered. Just collecting raw open source data (OSD) from the internet is not helpful for uncovering risk. This data must be weighed and examined so that financial crime professionals do not waste their time pursuing irrelevant leads.

    A Focus on Networks

    Investigative journalism has also helped to shift the focus of financial investigations from single entities to networks:

    ‘Unless we understand the network, we don’t understand the pollution left behind by that particular entity.’

    Nick Lewis

    Understanding these networks begins with providing AFC investigators ways of identifying an account’s corporate and social networks so that the risk at large can be assessed. These network maps must then be presented in clear graphs and charts so that informed decisions can be made as quickly and effectively as possible. The AFC industry has acknowledged that OSINT software is crucial to addressing these needs. 

    Considerations and challenges

    OSINT can undoubtedly play a key role in making financial crime investigations more effective, but there are certain factors that AFC teams need to take into account when utilising it. 


    Question marks often arise around how leaked data was sourced. Professional investigators must understand the quality and reliability of the data and information they use to develop intelligence and make decisions.

    Sources, such as the ICIJ or OCCRP, go through rigorous vetting and validation procedures to make sure that the data they make open source is valid. Unfortunately not all media sources apply such standards to their data releases. Financial crime professionals should thus take the time to look into how diligently their sources vet data so that their investigations are as watertight as possible.

    Proactively addressing regulations

    The panel discussed whether regulators expect organisations undertaking financial due diligence to be across every piece of online data relating to a customer, supplier or other counterparty.

    While AML regulations are not particularly prescriptive when it comes to the use of OSD, there are reasons for FIs to take it more seriously. For example, the 6th EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive (6AMLD) extended criminal liability towards those that failed to recognise or report on potential risks. The public nature of OSD places possible future pressure on investigators to use this information in order to demonstrate a more robust approach to due diligence. 

    Adoption of OSINT is thus now critical to stay ahead of regulations.

    The story behind the story

    It is important to highlight that OSD can be interpreted in different ways depending on the interests of the reader or, in the case of a professional investigator, the risk they are addressing.

    As Nick mentioned earlier, information in the public domain does not necessarily equate to useful intelligence. It is imperative for investigators to assess the story behind the story. 

    ‘Journalism is about telling stories, and sometimes it’s hard for AFC professionals to separate the story from the intelligence.’

    Nick Lewis

    To combat this challenge, it is worth looking at the entities connected to the people mentioned in stories. High-risk names connected to clients and suppliers might come up regularly, or the data might uncover structures that seem familiar.

    Tools such as Videris provide investigators with the ability to take names mentioned in data leaks and build detailed risk profiles for them. In addition to this the platform also maps out networks and connections between entities enabling faster and better-informed decision making.

    But as Graham mentioned: technology will only get you so far. The key to making use of this data is having an investigative mindset and ‘looking at the data sideways’ to get an accurate gauge of how useful it is.

    The Future Direction of OSINT and Investigative Journalism

    Charles asked the panellists for their thoughts on trends in relation to investigative reporting and the impact of these on the fight against financial crime. Together, they identified the following three major points of focus.

    Concerns about access

    A broad range of factors, from the increase in cybercrime and its impact on the strengthening of data security, to rising concerns about the mass collection and harvesting of personal data, are leading to obstacles being placed in the way of investigative journalists.

    The panel discussed the recent ECJ ruling and other signs of transparency around beneficial ownership being rolled back. There is talk of corporate beneficial ownership registers being taken out of the public space in Europe, with only law enforcement and legitimate journalists being allowed to view them – questions of what constitutes a ‘legitimate journalist’ still remain unanswered. Financial crime professionals will therefore need to monitor the impact that these data access restrictions might have on their ability  to utilise OSD in their investigations.

    Collaboration is key

    The relationship between journalists and AFC professionals has been complicated.

    FIs have, historically, been wary of talking to journalists, due to concerns about their motives. Journalists hence took this reservedness as a sign of covering up possible illicit activity. This relationship has since improved, but there is still a long way to go. All of the panellists agreed that more collaboration has to be encouraged between journalists and AFC professionals – including law enforcement – if financial crime is to be properly addressed.

    ‘We’re all on the same side: we want to catch the criminals, and investigative journalists want to do the right thing.’

    Graham Barrow

    Banks, governments, journalists, and investigators all have different pieces of the financial crime puzzle, and it is only by combining those pieces that a meaningful difference can be made.

    Constant vigilance

    The money launderers, fraudsters, and financial criminals of today are growing increasingly savvier with technology. As soon as new solutions are developed to catch them, they develop new strategies to avoid them.

    Consequently, it’s the responsibility of the entire investigations community to remain vigilant, and maintain up-to-date knowledge on the methods and techniques that they use. Compliance officers can prevent malicious actors from entering financial systems and corporate supply chains, and law enforcement officers can work to disrupt their activities. 

    OSINT has proven itself to be a powerful tool in helping financial crime professionals to identify suspicious activities. Continuing to embrace its capabilities and utilising advanced platforms that employ said capabilities are key to aiding the fight against financial crime.

    By using platforms like Videris, investigators can undertake research on individuals and organisations, across a broad range of OSD sources, in just a few clicks. Videris also provides multiple ways for investigators to rapidly and accurately review and analyse collected information. The end result: radical improvements in operational efficiency as less time is spent on manual, tedious activities and more time is devoted to identifying risk and reporting to stakeholders.

    Last Thoughts

    Thanks to projects like the Panama Papers, investigative journalism has brought financial crime to the public’s attention and encouraged governments to develop more robust strategies to address it.

    To summarise the key takeaways from this panel:

    • Investigative journalism has provided anti-financial crime professionals across both the public and private sectors with highly valuable intelligence.
    • Investigative journalism has raised awareness of financial crime and corruption, but there are trends developing that might impact the ability of journalists to continue operating in this field
    • Anti-financial crime professionals across all communities need to find ways to collaborate more effectively.

    The last thought from the panel was the importance of transparency in fighting financial crime:

    ‘The only thing that will bring global corruption down is transparency. If you want to be a corporate entity – with all the benefits that come with it – then you can’t have privacy. It’s one or the other.’

    Graham Barrow

    This could not be more apt. OSINT is the product of transparency. The more data and information that is available, the greater the ability of investigations and intelligence professionals to hold bad actors accountable.

    It is Blackdot’s mission to promote transparency by providing anti-financial crime professionals with a single pane of glass through which they can conduct fast and efficient investigations. Our recent ‘Future of OSINT’ event brought together AFC experts from a whole range of backgrounds and industries, and you can watch the entire event for free

    1 Impact to Date – OCCRP

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