Our quest for transparency sees hackers and journalists dying for your right to know

by Kim Prince | Dec 5, 2019 | Business

On the fringes of our financial world secret money is coming up against hackers and journalists who are literally dying to get the information out. Data journalist, Kim Prince, describes the evolution in offshore data leaks which has led to #29Leaks and the deep sense of injustice which has motivated the key players.

In 2016, when John Doe brought us the Panama Papers, the granddaddy of all tax haven leaks, he said that “Income inequality is one of the defining issues of our time”. He leaked the documents because he

“…understood enough about their contents to realise the scale of the injustices they described”. 

Fast forward to 17 November 2019, the date of the most recent tax haven data leak. A branch of the Cayman National Bank and Trust was first hacked four years earlier by the notorious hacker Phineas Fisher, but the data has only just been released. It comes with a “DIY guide to robbing banks” — a part-manifesto, part-hacker guide. 

Túpac Katari

The manifesto is wild and roaming, but meticulous and methodical too. Phineas is a “product of a broken system… not motivated by hate for banks… but by a love for life…” He is a seed of rebellion planted by Túpac Katari, an indigenous leader in the region what is now Bolivia. After an unsuccessful siege 238 years ago, Túpac was executed by the Spanish. His last words were:

“I die but will return tomorrow as thousand thousands”. 

John Doe and Phineas Fisher have much in common, but there is a key difference. John Doe extracted the data only, where Phineas claims also to have wired out “a couple hundred thousand”. “Stealing data” and “stealing money” are two different things: one is a zero sum game, the other is not. In his defence, Phineas offers to redistribute expropriated money to “awesome projects making positive social change”, via cryptocurrency of course. 

A third notable leak which is guaranteed to throw light on secret money is the hack of Formations House, a shell company factory based in London. The data drop of emails, faxes and phone calls was leaked to Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDOS. For 15 years, Formations House has offered customers fast company setup based on minimum paperwork. The new company can be in the UK or in one of two tax havens. It may include an optional bank account, even for customers with a poor credit history.

The Formations House leak, known as the #29Leaks due to its upmarket London address at 29 Harley Street, was announced in July this year. After receiving its treasure, DDOS distributed this massive data drop to a global collaboration of media companies — including Crikey Inq and Michael West Media in Australia — via the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a non-profit media organisation which helps journalists. Since that time, journalists have been poring over its contents. A global embargo was lifted yesterday, 4 December 2019, and stories are now breaking around the globe.  

In Australia, a collaboration between Michael West Media and Crikey INQ broke the story of Operation Slippery, a Russian aviation magnate diverting Defence profits to tax havens.

Operation Slippery: Russian aviation magnate diverts Australian Defence profits to tax havens

While the motivation behind the leak is not yet clear – and very many of the companies run legitimate businesses – the scandal ridden history of Formations House itself suggests that other crimes will come to light.

Fuelled by troves of leaked data, cross-border investigative journalism has risen dramatically in recent years. Clear roles are emerging in the leak-to-publish chain, and players are experimenting with technology platforms and different degrees of openness. The movement is made more interesting by the fact that it joins one of humankind’s most collaborative communities, technologists, with one of the world’s most competitive, journalists. 

The Panama Papers marked a seminal point in the history of journalism. With 107 media organisations from 80 countries, it was collaboration on a scale not seen before. At its beating heart was a new breed of technology that made it simple to identify patterns in the data, patterns which may previously have lay hidden for months or years. But the model is not perfect and some stories remain trapped. 

Keepers of the Panama Papers, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), make a skeleton of the data available to the public. While this is immensely valuable it has drawn criticism from those who want to see the data comprehensively mined “by the crowd”. In Wikileaks’ view:

“If you censor more than 99% of the documents you are engaged in 1% journalism by definition”. 

On the other hand, Wikileaks, with its own brand of sometimes radical transparency, has drawn fire for publishing unredacted material, and the personal details of high profile individuals, information that may endanger lives. 

Media dead silent as Wikileaks insider explodes the myths around Julian Assange

The OCCRP have made the Formations House and Cayman National datasets available to collaborating journalists. There are no plans for the OCCRP to make the Formations House data available to the public, and their approach to Cayman National is not yet clear. In what may prove to be a masterstroke, however, their core software is developed as part of a collaborative project that anyone can join. Other players, such as the newly established Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoS), have recently implemented the free software, and by contributing their own customisations back to the project, the platform may continue to improve and grow. Anyone interested in downloading the data can do so from their website.

So it seems that hackers and leakers of tax haven data are driven by a deep sense of injustice. They are feeding a global, self-organising network of technologists and journalists who are working toward a fairer world. Together, they are circling secret money. What does this mean for Australia? 

Following a lead from a foreign country to Australia sometimes feels like a cold shower. Most information in the Companies Register, which is provided by ASIC on outdated technology, requires a fee. To find out who owns a company you must “walk the tree of ownership”, paying for information every step of the way. Serious research or an investigation feels more like a virtual odyssey with its own system of in-game payments.

By comparison, the Gov UK Companies House allows any member of the public – tradies, journalists, anyone – to quickly search, from any device, for free, to find not only current company details, but historical information too, including all documents filed during the lifetime of the company. Identifying the ultimate owners or controllers of a company requires one extra click.

Investigation: ASIC fees highest in world, even before data sale

Transparency is also lacking in commonwealth public procurement, including defence contracts. In a recent exercise, our attempts to identify the contracts related to one particular request for tender were unsuccessful. AusTender, too, were unable to identify the contracts — and were unable to advise if this was due to the information being suppressed, or simply a data handling error. 

The media landscape in Australia reduces transparency further. Large commercial players can not afford to report negatively on advertisers, and the public broadcasters must tread carefully when reporting on the government. 

The difficulty is that there is an army of individuals around the world who are committed to transparency, really committed. Some, such as Barret Brown and Chelsea Manning, have been imprisoned. Others have paid a higher price still. 

In the US in 2013, Aaron Swartz, a progenitor of the Internet, took his own life while facing a court case that could have seen him jailed for 35 years. His crime was downloading academic journals. He was 27 when he died. 

In Malta, 2017, investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia died in a car bomb attack close to her home. She was particularly focussed on government corruption, and had been involved in numerous investigations, some based on data from the Panama Papers. At the time of writing, the case of her death is threatening to topple the Maltese government. 

Closer to home there has been a recent uptick in support for Julian Assange, but he remains in prison and is reported to be perilously unwell. Extradition to the US, or further deterioration in his health, will do nothing to quell the unrest that for some, started more than 200 years ago. 


Big Four the winners as cosy journalist clique conceals mountain of tax haven data

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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.

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