From Spotlight to the Panama Papers: How tech is helping investigators connect the dots

8 min read

30 May 2016

The film Spotlight, set in 2001, tells the true story of a team of investigative journalists who spent months at a time researching exposés for the Boston Globe. Thanks to new technologies, today's investigators are able to start following leads with just a few keystrokes.

Given a potential lead, the team of journalists in Spotlight would start with a few names and boxes of documents and clippings to start their research. They would meticulously take notes, flagging items of interest as they went through rounds of interviewing people and getting more records.

Fast forward to today and the work done by Süddeutsche Zeitung and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on the Panama Papers. The big difference is the number of documents and the time it took to break their first story. In this case, investigators had to sort through 11.5m records. How did the journalists investigating the Panama Papers manage in just six months to follow so many lines of questioning and unexpected connections to achieve the results we have seen so far? Thanks to new technologies, investigators were able to start following leads through this vast operation with just a few keystrokes.

Unravelling a tangled web of information

In Spotlight, the journalists happen across an investigation that turns out to be much bigger than they originally expected. They start looking for a better way to explore their theories due to time pressures. They look for patterns that might indicate how to find “more records like these.” Eventually, they hit the jackpot when they find a large series of books, essentially paper databases that hold records going back many years. The film brings to light the hard work of investigative journalism as they pore over the records one by one with a ruler and a pen, circling those that match the patterns they feel are key to their story.

Read more movie-related articles:

Much like the team in the film, Süddeutsche Zeitung received a large box of documents from a protected source. But there were three big differences. The journalists investigating the Panama Papers had to sift through virtual documents rather than paper. They had to make sense of a much larger number of documents – 11.5m, to be exact – to determine what the real story was and it only took them six months to bring it to light. 

What is also interesting in this case is that a large component of the evidence was 3 million database records. Rather than searching through them manually, the Süddeutsche Zeitung team used legal discovery software to see these records alongside the additional information provided – 5 million emails and 3 million PDFs and image files. By conducting a unified search, they were able to quickly see key items of intelligence such as names, companies, countries, and monetary values linking up with similar items within documents – even documents that might have seemed very ordinary on their own.

Connecting everything

Investigating the Panama Papers was a marvellous feat of investigative journalism. However, today, 11.5m documents is really a fairly average-sized legal discovery case. With ever-increasing data volumes, investigators in every information management discipline – including cybersecurity, discovery and information governance – are turning to new methods to trawl through growing volumes of search results to find the information they seek. 

Read on to find out how technology has enabled investigators to sort through information quickly.

Rather than manually searching through interminable lists and tables like the journalists in the film, today’s technologies provide investigators with much easier ways of understanding large quantities of information. By presenting data in a visual way, advanced tools enable investigators to analyse all evidence at once. The most advanced technologies can visually analyse, map, and categorise items of interest such as internet histories, device access records and communication activities against more common business records.

For example, rather than looking at a large list of communication records extracted from mobile phones and desktop computers, investigators can display this information as a visual network. At a glance, they can see who made certain phone calls, whom they spoke to, and how often. Investigators can also can use IP addresses or embedded metadata to locate geographical coordinates and plot maps which enable them to understand the movements of a person of interest and their contacts. 

By using data visualisation techniques, investigators can discard irrelevant or redundant information and quickly highlight and focus in on anomalies they have discovered. They can expose information they didn’t previously know about and find links between data sources they might otherwise have missed, identifying previously unseen patterns and trends in the data. Once investigators have exposed an item of interest, they can pull on that thread and see where it leads – what other data it is linked to, what new findings it helps uncover, and what new intelligence it reveals. They can use these visualisations to establish key players, their locations, and their involvement in the story.

Drawing conclusions

Teams sorting through information manually, or looking at documents in disparate systems, like the journalists in Spotlight, may find it difficult to draw out relationships and connections even within a small set of documents. Instead, the journalists investigating the Panama Papers let Nuix and other technologies do that work for them. They could take huge lists of items and flip the results of each search into visual representations of linked documents, showing how they were connected. 

As a result, in just six months they managed to follow hundreds of lines of questioning and unexpected connections, achieving the results we have seen in the media so far. The key was to work intelligently, with all the data in the same place. By drawing out connections early, they were able to see links that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

Angela Bunting is vice president eDiscovery at Nuix.

Meanwhile, the Panama Papers has emphasised how some of the world’s most prominent leaders have used tax havens to hide their wealth. And it may be the final push needed to crack down on tax evasion.