It was nothing less than a hugely sensitive data drop: 15 years of client communications leaked from the London-based shell-company factory Formations House to a group of transparency activists.
In July this year, the treasure trove of emails, faxes and phone calls leaked to an organisation known as Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDOS.
Formations House, which has been implicated in several scandals involving dubious individuals such as the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, has since 2001 offered customers fast company set-up services based on minimum paperwork. A new company can be established in the UK, or in one of two tax havens in the Seychelles and the British Virgin Islands, even for customers with a poor credit history.
After receiving its treasure, DDOS distributed this massive data drop to a global collaboration of media companies — including Inq and Michael West Media in Australia — and to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a non-profit media organisation which helps journalists.
While the motivation behind the leak is not yet clear, and it should be noted that while many of the companies which use Formations House run legitimate businesses, the scandal-ridden history of Formations House itself suggests that widespread illegal or questionable behaviour could come to light.
This leak is yet another chapter in the flourishing of cross-border investigative journalism 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 — a worldwide media collaboration now dubbed #29Leaks — 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.
And in the footsteps of the Panama Papers, media companies from Europe, Asia, India, the US, the UK and Australia are simultaneously publishing their revelations today.
The Panama Papers exposé 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 database: a graph database. It showed relationships between entities such as offshore companies, their directors, and law firms. It 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. Only a fraction of the data has ever been released to the public.
The Formations House data sets have been made available to journalists via the OCCRP. It is not yet clear whether it plans to open them to the public. But in what may prove to be a masterstroke, the OCCRP’s core software is developed as part of a collaborative project that anybody can join. Other players, including DDOS, have implemented the free software, and by contributing their own customisations the platform may continue to grow and improve.
The result: hackers and leakers of tax haven data are feeding a global, self-organising network of technologists and journalists who are working towards a more transparent world.
Together, they are circling secret money.