How an Australian startup played an “indispensable part” in the explosive Panama Papers investigation

A small Australian startup that was launched from a Sydney garage played an “indispensable part” in making the explosive Panama Papers investigation – the biggest data leak in history – possible.

Nuix, an Australian big data analytics company, provided its software to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to help sift through 2.6 terabytes of data that included detailed information about more than 214,000 offshore companies listed by Panama-based Mossack Fonseca.

The explosive investigation, revealed last week, exposed how numerous high-profile individuals, including politicians and celebrities, hid their money in tax havens, and has already led to the resignation of Iceland’s Prime Minister.

Helping to sift through the biggest data leak ever

The technology, provided free-of-charge by Nuix, made the 11.5 million leaked documents searchable, helping more than 350 journalists sift through emails, pdf files and photos to find common links and relationships quickly.

As Suddeutsche Zeitung reports, the journalists were then able to compile a list of politicians, criminals and well-known celebrities and then cross-check these names with the leaked documents in “just a few minutes”.

“Nuix technology was an indispensable part of our work on the Panama Papers investigation, as it has been with the Offshore Leaks and many of our other in-depth investigative stories,” ICIJ director Gerard Ryle said in a statement.

Nuix vice-president Angela Bunting says her company was able to help the journalists do something in a couple of weeks that would have previously taken years.

“People doing this work a few years ago would be sifting manually through papers trying to make relationships and connections – like the old pin boards you see in the movies with post-it notes and photos,” Bunting tells StartupSmart.

“We take a particularly broad breadth of file types and normalise them, making them available to be searched. You can then get real intelligence from the data.

“It’s a fantastic story, particularly for an Australian tech startup.”

Bunting says the Nuix team intentionally don’t see what is actually in the files their technology works with, and were just as surprised as the rest of the world when the Panama Papers investigation was revealed.

“We weren’t involved with any aspect of the actual investigation,” she says.

“We provided them with the software and the training, but like most of our work it’s all theoretical. We don’t know anything about what our clients actually do.

“We were just as interested as the rest of the world seeing the news break and the stats behind it – we could see what we’d been contributing to for the last six months.”

A common goal

The Sydney-based tech company has been working with the ICIJ for “quite a few years now”
and Bunting says they share many common values and goals with the global organisation.

“When they came to us we saw that their mission really aligned with ours – to protect, inform and empower people in the digital age,” she says.

“We were very happy to support a not-profit to get through data and investigate intelligently.

“We’re really proud to be able to help them.”

It is technology like that of Nuix that is helping investigative journalism remain possible, she says.

“Investigative journalist just isn’t done around the world anymore – that’s how the ICIJ came about,” Bunting says.

“People didn’t want to invest six months or three years in the manual labour. It probably would’ve taken years to do something of this magnitude.”

Despite the huge international ramifications of the documents, she says the size was relatively small for what the Nuix software is used to dealing with.

“It’s quite a small amount for Nuix,” Bunting says.

“Our average matter is around 10 terabytes. In the context of what we can handle it’s relatively small but it’s still one of the largest leaks in the world.”

Nuix has now been operating for more than a decade, with over 1500 clients in 65 countries, including the likes of the UN and the US Secret Service.

“We’re doing very well,” Bunting says.

“We’re widely used and trusted as a leading investigative tool in the industry.”

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