The Unaoil Scandal: How Big Data and investigative journalists have raised anti-corruption whistle-blower risks to new levels

This article looks at the Unaoil scandal and discusses how Big Data and investigative journalists have raised anti-corruption whistle-blower risks to new levels.

1 April 2016

It’s every company’s nightmare. A disgruntled current (or former) employee who had access to your computer network and knowledge of some questionable (if not illegal) business conduct decides that calling your hotline or reporting the issue to the government is not the way to go. Instead, they contact some journalists and hand over an electronic stash of your sensitive and confidential internal documents. The journalists pour through the documents, put the pieces together, and publish a series of articles that name your employees, your customers, and possibly even the people who were allegedly bribed. In the worst case scenario, the first you hear about it is when it’s splashed across the internet for all to see.

That’s exactly what has just happened with the Unaoil scandal. You might be thinking “Who is Unaoil?” If you don’t know Unaoil, you soon will. Yesterday (30 March 2016), Fairfax Media and the Huffington Post ran a series of articles about alleged bribes by Unaoil, a Monaco-based third party intermediary for a number of companies in the oil and gas industry. These Unaoil articles are based on a treasure trove of tens of thousands of internal Unaoil documents supplied to the journalists by a whistle-blower. According to the articles, Unaoil paid bribes on behalf of their clients in order to obtain contracts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and UAE. The articles include the names of well over a dozen Unaoil clients on whose behalf the bribes were allegedly paid (including some household names, and some former and current subjects of corruption investigations), as well as the names of the alleged recipients of these bribes. The whistle-blower reportedly did not seek any money in exchange for providing these documents. Whoever said hell hath no fury like a woman scorned clearly never met a disgruntled whistle-blower.

Unaoil is just the latest example of how the combination of a whistle-blower, a (large) memory stick, and an investigative journalist team can result in a “trial by media” (and sometimes by ambush). Other recent examples include: The Sunday Times and FIFA, The New York Times and Walmart, and The Wall Street Journal and The Sweett Group. Today’s electronic information age makes it easier than ever for a whistle-blower to provide huge volumes of internal and confidential data. To give you some idea, the 2008 Siemens investigation was long believed to be the high water mark for scope, scale and cost. That investigation involved electronically searching 82 million documents. By comparison, in 2014 the FIFA whistle-blower gave The Sunday Times access to a database with “hundreds of millions” of documents. It’s not just the volume of information. Corruption cases can be notoriously difficult to prove. Whistle-blowers might not be inclined to wait for a company or a government investigation that might not yield sufficient evidence for a public outcome. In contrast, journalists do not need to meet the same evidentiary test as, say, the DOJ or the SFO.  

All of this results in an exponentially increased risk for companies that they could wind up the subject of a journalistic expose. There are certainly steps that companies can take to help mitigate these risks. But Unaoil is just the latest reminder that, in today’s electronic information age, there are no real secrets.