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

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.

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