2023 IJ4EU Impact Award Winner: The Devils Is in the Data

ECPMF

06 April 2023

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This undercover investigation by freelancers Andy Brown, Philippe Auclair, Steve Menary and Jack Kerr in four countries reveals how live data fed to the sports betting industry can create  fertile ground for match-fixing. The team members were based in the UK, France, and Australia. They used specialised software tools to analyse large amounts of data and location recognition software to identify the location of matches. They also mapped out which bookmakers were offering live data on which sports, including illegal games involving underage players. They scouted data for SportModule and created the fake platform FanZone.bet, which analysed available sporting data to determine whether the provision of live data was illegal. The investigation’s findings led to an attack on The Sports Integrity Initiative and its web provider.

 

Ahead of the 2023 IJ4EU Impact Award Ceremony, we spoke with London-based French freelance football writer Philippe Auclair about their investigation.

Ij4EU The Devil in the Data

What initially sparked your interest in this investigation?

As it often happens, it all started when a whistleblower reached out to me and a mutual acquaintance. I had worked with him before, but had no idea about his job in the gambling industry in Southeast Asia. He had worked in Manila, Shanghai, and Macau, and had decided to leave because of the terrible things he witnessed. He couldn’t tell me over the phone and insisted we meet in person.

 

We met in a bar in Bloomsbury, London, and he began to explain how the Asian gambling syndicates were operating, which I found eye-opening. Chinese nationals living in the Philippines were working illegally in the industry, controlled by criminal gangs. I felt compelled to research this further, which took about six months, and I published my first piece, “The Trillion Dollar Game.”

 

After that, I was contacted by Steve Menary, who was also working on a related topic. We met and exchanged information, and I thought it would be best to work together on this. We also brought in Andy and a young Australian tech wizard named Jack.

 

We realised that this investigation would require a lot of manpower, so we submitted a pitch and were thrilled to receive funding. We published several stories, and each time we uncovered something new. We have even discovered links between illegal gambling and slave labour. There is still much to uncover, and we plan to continue this investigation for the next 12 months.

 

It all started with something that I was not aware of, and little by little, we pulled the threads and realised there was something very important there. While it was risky at times, it was worth it because it is in the genuine public interest.

 

Could you please describe the importance of the cross-border aspect in the investigation?

The cross-border aspect was absolutely essential in our investigation. Our team consisted of members from Norway, France, the United Kingdom, and Australia, which allowed us to access different resources and perspectives. Conducting research from multiple locations meant we had varying levels of access to information and resources, making the cross-border approach crucial to our success.

 

Additionally, the multi-lingual approach was crucial to our investigation. Our team members had contacts across Europe, allowing us to gather information and insights from a diverse range of sources. It’s safe to say that if all team members had been from the same country, we would not have been able to achieve the same level of success.

 

One of our team members, Jack, worked primarily in Asia, which was particularly beneficial as he was able to provide us with information closer to the source. I had contacts in France, including those in law enforcement agencies and watchdog groups, while Steve and Andy had their own extensive networks.

 

The cross-border aspect is so critical that we have even added a fifth member from Belgium, Salindra, who will be joining us soon. We are also collaborating with individuals from Pakistan, Trinidad, and Cameroon, which underscores the importance of a global approach to tackling the issue.

 

The significance of the cross-border approach was evident when I gave a talk at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg last November. I addressed prosecutors from various countries, demonstrating that our investigation is a global issue that requires a global team. The bottom line is that to tackle a global subject, you need a global team, right? It makes total sense.

 

Can you tell me about the process your team went through in creating the fake unlicensed Asian betting operator, Fanzone.bet? What was the inspiration behind this idea?

It was actually my idea. I was at a gambling conference with Andy and Steve at Stamford Bridge, and I thought, “How can we prove that data companies are enabling criminals to conduct their illegal activities?” The only way to do that was to pretend to be a betting operator ourselves. So, Andy agreed to help and posed as our European point of contact, Andrew Mattock. We decided on an Asian woman with good English language skills as our main character, and named her Jessica Chan, a typical Chinese name. We made sure to put red flags everywhere to ensure we would be caught if data companies did their due diligence.

 

My friend is a web designer, and he helped us create a realistic-looking betting site with a fake licence number and address that didn’t exist. We said we were licensed, but we obviously were not. The goal was to prove that data companies would supply live data to anyone and everyone, regardless of their legitimacy.

 

We were initially worried about the possibility of lawsuits, but everything was rock solid, and we were not targeted. We demonstrated that data companies are enabling criminals to conduct illegal activities, which is shocking. The same people who provide data for bets and games are responsible for ensuring the integrity of the games, yet they are also the ones who set the odds.

 

It’s concerning that authorities have not taken action on this issue. We found fake companies that sponsor other companies and models who pose as executives that do not actually exist but belong to the same syndicates. This is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s obvious that these people are gangsters.

 

Can you tell us about the responses you received from data companies when you requested live data?

Well, I have to be careful because of confidentiality reasons, but we did receive varied responses. One data company refused to provide us with the data we requested, which we respected. However, the majority of the big data companies were more than happy to provide us with the data, which we found surprising. We asked for data on amateur games and under-18 games, which they were willing to supply without any qualms. It was quite concerning to us how easily accessible this sensitive data was to outsiders.

 

Interestingly, after we published our findings, we did not receive any further responses from the data companies. There was no acknowledgement or follow-up from any of them, which we found disappointing. However, we did receive significant responses from various groups in the football world, law enforcement agencies, watchdogs. Strangely, we did not receive any response from the sports data industry, which we found quite puzzling.

 

We had anticipated that these companies would be quite litigious, given their secretive nature, but we were surprised that they did not come after us. We had even hoped that they would sue us so that we could share our correspondence and emails in court to expose their activities. Unfortunately, they preferred to remain discreet and avoid the limelight.

 

It is worth noting that the illegal gambling industry is massive, with an estimated worth of 1.6 trillion dollars, twice the value of the narcotics trade. This is a concerning reality, and unfortunately, bookmakers play a significant role in enabling this criminal activity.

 

As for our safety, there are certain areas we avoid, such as the Philippines, Shanghai, Singapore, and now Cyprus. However, we are fortunate to live and work in countries where it is relatively safe to conduct our research. It also helps that we work as a team and collaborate with other individuals and groups who are working towards similar goals.

You can watch a full recording of the 2023 IJ4EU Impact Award Ceremony below.

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