It’s a rare glimpse of an otherwise tightly guarded datastore – and it’s worrying: many innocent people and organizations find themselves in the World Check database, which protects banks against potentially dangerous customers. This was the outcome of joint research by The Times of London (Great Britain), NDR / Süddeutscher (Germany), NPO Radio 1 (Netherlands), De Tijd (Belgium), La Repubblica (Italy) and The Intercept (USA). For the first time, they had comprehensive insight into World Check thanks to a leaked copy of the dataset containing more than two million profiles as of 2014.
The World Check database is a service of the global information and media group Thomson Reuters and one of only a few major offerings for identifying potentially problematic customers for banks and financial service providers: Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs), as well as individuals and organizations in the categories of crime, money laundering and terror. Under anti-money laundering and corruption laws, banks are required to scrutinise in advance those with whom they do business. If suspicion arises, they may refuse even a basic account. The banks are required to watch closely those customers with international connections, and cross-border transfers must be considered carefully.
However, the journalists revealed that many individuals and organizations were wrongly listed: Many are demonstrably innocent, such as people and organizations against whom allegations have not been proven or that are controversial and uncomfortable, but not criminal. Examples include the human rights organization Human Rights Watch, the animal welfare organization Peta, the environmental group Greenpeace, opposition politicians from Sri Lanka and Eritrea, and American whistleblower Chelsea Manning, whose entry points to financial crime. The reason for these listings was often in the sources, which are added to a profile without any rating or weighting. Among them are state propaganda, conspiracy, even right-wing extremist sites. Official government sources from around the world are used – but activity deemed criminal in one country may be perfectly legal in another.
Confronted with the research results, Thomson Reuters spoke cautiously, citing data protection reasons. The company said the information underlying World-Check comes primarily from hundreds of government and judicial databases, regulatory and law enforcement agencies, the EU and the United Nations. It said further information, such as from blogs, only flows in to confirm other findings and is clearly marked. The findings would also be brought together by teams of specialized staff. Thomson Reuters promotes its service boasting sophisticated algorithms and a team of 250 analysts who create 25,000 new profiles and update a further 40,000 existing profiles every month.
Investigative journalists Jasmin Klofta (Germany) and Tom Wills (UK) explain how, as part of an international collaboration, they exposed World-Check. They will show how they used data mining, OSINT and traditional investigative techniques to analyse this database and discover the human impact of this Kafkaesque system, which is used by almost every major bank and many other institutions including law enforcement agencies.
Jasmin Klofta is an investigative reporter from Hamburg. She works for PANORAMA (NDR/ARD) focusing on politics, digital economicy and surveillance.
Tom Wills is an investigative journalist who specialises in using data mining, open source intelligence and digital forensics to find stories.