Open Source Intelligence and the Cash for Access Scandal

The latest “cash for access” scandal has ensnared two former foreign secretaries: Jack Straw MP and Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP. Investigators from Channel 4’s Dispatches programme and journalists at The Telegraph set up PMR Communications, a fake marketing agency in Hong Kong, to gain access to the two politicians. Both men were then duped in a recorded discussion of their daily rates and their political connections which could be of value to PMR. The question is, using open source intelligence (OSINT) tools, techniques and methods, could they have uncovered the true nature of PMR?

In their right to reply, both Straw and Rifkind claimed they had carried out an inquiry into the company and were satisfied that it was legitimate. Rifkind said: ‘I did look at their website. Due diligence is something one does when one has received a firm offer.’ Straw made a similar statement: ‘Having researched the company, I made enquiries in Hong Kong and was told the company appeared to be bona fide, but that the best way to carry out further due diligence was to meet with the individuals.’

Clearly however, their investigations were only cursory and far from sufficient and they were caught out for failing to conduct an effective due diligence on the company.  It is unclear how extensive their inquiries were but it appears that both men were apparently satisfied after looking at the company’s entirely fake website.

A first and obvious starting point is searching for PMR on companies databases. In the UK we have Companies House, but as the fictitious company was supposedly registered in Hong Kong, we need to look at international companies databases. A good starting point is Bureau van Dijk (BvD). A search for PMR on BvD returns 1,011 records; although time-consuming, it is relatively straightforward to check each record.

A faster method is to carry out a search for PMR within the BvD search results. The results from BvD are provided through Mint Global, a streamlined end-user version of BvD’s Orbis database. On Mint you can search for a company and a country location in the same search. This search returns three results for companies based in Hong Kong, none of which are the company in question:

  • PMPromotion Limited;
  • PMPTEC (China) Corporation Limited;
  • Lumbini Electric Company Limited

Hong Kong also provides business directories to search which enables a more targeted investigation of companies located there. A search for PMR on HongKongDIR and on HongKongcompanylist both returned three results, two of which can be immediately dismissed:

  • PMR International Limited – registered in 1988 and since dissolved;
  • PMR Wines & Spirits (H.K.) Limited

The third result was more interesting:

  • PMR Global Asia Limited – a private company limited by shares that was registered only a month ago on the 20th January 2015.

Clicking on the search result for PMR Global Asia Limited provides additional details including the company number, company type, business type and active state as shown on the screenshot below from HongKongDIR:

Screenshot of PMR Global Asia Limited company details from HongKongDIR

Screenshot of PMR Global Asia Limited company details from HongKongDIR

Unfortunately, PMR Global Asia Limited is not the fake company in question and the timing of the company’s incorporation is just a coincidence. The company set up by the Dispatches team was called PMR Communications with a now defunct website www.pmrcommunications.com. The entirely fictional company claimed to have a Managing Director, a certain Lin Zhang and also a Hong Kong address:

PMR Communications, Causeway Bay, 101 Zoroastrian Building, 101 Leighton Road, Hong Kong (shown on the map below):

101 Zoroastrian Building

As the Dispatches programme made clear, the company was not officially registered anywhere in the world. A simple search across multiple business directories as I carried out would have been enough to confirm this fact and yet clearly neither politician did this. Therefore, the due diligence they supposedly conducted can only have been perfunctory and based solely on a fake website which provided only minimal information, but enough to entice the politicians into meeting “company representatives”. It also calls into question the exact nature and scope of the Hong Kong inquiries Jack Straw claims to have carried out.

There is an important lesson here; the use of open source intelligence (OSINT) is often shrouded in discussions of methodologies or sophisticated tools. In reality however, it is a fundamentally simple but effective process of research and investigation; there is no mystery to it. A better appreciation of this could have saved Mr Straw and Mr Rifkind a lot of trouble. The former had hoped for a peerage upon stepping down at the 2015 election, a wish that will now go unfulfilled; and the latter has since stepped down as Chairman of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee and will not be standing for another term as MP for Kensington.

This episode is not just a story of political connections or the mistakes of two very senior politicians. It is a lesson in the value of open source intelligence and a reminder that too few people are aware of how to carry out simple yet effective research.

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