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

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.

Share this story

Close
Menu
Send this to a friend