Crime fighter goes global

TESS MCCLURE
Last updated 05:00 15/02/2014

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From a block of nondescript offices in outer Christchurch suburbia, Wynyard Group creates software designed to fight organised crime: human trafficking, money laundering and gun running.

It's a service that isn't often associated with "little old New Zealand", Wynyard managing director Craig Richardson says.

But that hasn't stopped the group becoming an increasingly visible player in the emerging market of crime analytics software.

The company - which began as a subsidiary of Christchurch's Jade Software - became a separate entity in January 2013. Publicly listed in mid-2013, and since described as a "market darling", the company's share price has more than doubled, and it has experienced revenue growth of more than 62 per cent.

Today, Wynyard has a market capitalisation of close to $300 million, and has announced high-profile contracts with the New Zealand Police, Serious Fraud Office, Australian Federal Police, Thai Customs, and Dubai Airport. It also has contracts - in the United Kingdom, Southeast Asia, United States and Middle East - which remain confidential.

But what is it that Wynyard does? And does its soaring share price reflect the true value of the company, or a Kiwi "tech bubble"?

OLD CRIME, NEW TOOLS

Transnational organised crime is valued by the United Nations at $900 billion a year - around seven times New Zealand's gross domestic product.

With so much at stake, Richardson says, "crime is the most innovative of businesses".

"So there's considerable motivation and creativity within that to continue to reinvent and find new ways to do old crimes."

What does modern organised crime look like?

At Antwerp port in Belgium, 2011, workers began to notice discrepancies with a series of "disappearing" containers. In 2013, police uncovered the source: a two-year cyber attack on the port, with hired hackers infiltrating the port's computer networks, and altering data to disguise the removal of containers. A Dutch drug syndicate had used the containers to shift several tonnes of cocaine and heroin, shipped from South America.

It sounds very Hollywood.

But Richardson says the case illustrates a growing trend and fundamental change in the capabilities and strategies of criminal groups.

"That case is really interesting, because you have drug traffickers and money launderers who collaborated with cyber criminals to hack into a large enterprise system and change data.

"What's changed is we're seeing the convergence of crime: the ability of criminals to use multiple channels in a very well organised business process," he says. "Just like businesses, they've industrialised and globalised."

For law enforcement groups, and businesses or agencies looking for security, the changes demand new, smarter tools for a new, smarter methods of crime.

Increasingly, Richardson says, transnational crime will be of top concern to firms, governments and law enforcement.

"In most Western countries, domestic crime is declining but transnational crime is on the increase. Police have got better at what they do locally, but the challenge now is that the game has shifted to the online world. And the laws and tools available to law enforcement agencies haven't caught up."

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SOLUTIONS FOR A NEW GENERATION OF CRIME

Wynyard Group develops tools to combat a new generation of crime.

Richardson says the company employs people from a range of backgrounds - ex-detectives, intelligence workers, university researchers and software technicians - to try to create a product that combines industry experience, academia, and data analysis into a viable solution.

The software they develop takes "big data" and analyses it for patterns, similarities and connections. Clients can load in any number of data sets, including mobile-phone data, financial transactions, and the intelligence of a local police force across multiple crimes and over an extended period.

Wynyard's software then analyses the data for connections.

"If we take the attributes of that crime and load them into the system, and look at all instances of that crime over years, look at all the people who are perhaps suspects or related in that crime - our ability is to tell whether they're part of something bigger. It's the ability to take an event and link that to multiple events, multiple entities over time, something that's quite difficult to do manually," Richardson says.

At a basic level, it could mean noticing trends: when a certain crime occurs, it could coincide with a flurry of phone activity or a series of odd bank transactions.

Analysing these kinds of large-scale data sets and transposing them over one another "wasn't possible a few years ago, because the tools weren't even available."

THE QUESTIONS OF BIG DATA

The use of personal data for security and risk management is more controversial than ever.

Debate over New Zealand's own GCSB (Government Communications Security Bureau) bill has played out among revelations about mass surveillance programmes from US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Richardson is vehement that the Wynyard Group is not in the business of surveillance or data collection: "We don't gather data, we don't store data. We build the tools so those law enforcement agencies can collect and organise data."

He says that, ultimately, where that data comes from is not Wynyard Group's responsibility.

"Those law enforcement agencies are required by law to follow the law and due process . . . But, at the end of the day, being compliant with the law is that agency's responsibility."

As for the wider debate, Richardson says he does not "have a view either way on whether what Snowden did was right", but says the NSA have actually had positive impact for the company.

"What it did do was surface the real issue, which is how do we manage that balance between security and privacy. For software companies, it's really surfaced the capability software has, and the fact there need to be rules and laws and processes that protect the privacy of citizens."

He believes Wynyard's software actually helps agencies to ensure they are not in breach of privacy law, by auditing all information that is programmed in.

"Because we come from a compliance and investigations background, we had all that structure built into our products - so our products force the customer to follow the rules, to follow due process."

A NZ TECH BUBBLE?

After the announcement international contracts in January, shares in Wynyard Group leapt, reaching a high of more than $3, after being listed at $1.15 in July 2013. It followed closely behind the sky-rocketing tech shares of Kiwi firms such as Xero, which rose more than 400 per cent in value in less than 12 months.

Recently listed companies like GeoOp, Wynyard and SLI had similar upward jumps in 2013, leading to some cries of a "tech bubble" on the market.

Hamilton Hindin Greene analyst James Smalley warns investors to make sure the fundamentals of tech-sector firms such as Wynyard stack up to support their stock price.

"This type of stock is relatively new to the domestic New Zealand market. It's certainly a stock that's going to be, by its sheer nature, quite volatile."

He added that, with a relatively new New Zealand tech industry, it was difficult for investors to judge the viability of a company's product, and few had the technical expertise to know its market potential.

"With technology moving so fast, OK, these guys are good now, but are they going to be good in a year? Who knows?

"That's why it's so hard to place X, Y, or Z value per share on a company like this - because it could ultimately be worth nothing, or it could be worth a billion-plus dollars."

Investors risk buying shares which ride on perception of a firm, rather than its real-world ability to make money.

Often, Smalley says, no real financial link exists between how the company is faring and the share price. "With the tech stocks, it's all about perceived growth."

Buying into these kinds of companies, he says, is win big, lose big.

"You either do really really well or quite poorly, and that's why they're considered relatively high risk."

Best-case scenario, he says, you're investing in the early stages of a company like Google, which began at $100 a share and rose quickly to $1000.

"But, if ultimately the company is not successful, and it was a good idea but doesn't come off, it can go very wrong very quickly."

Richardson disagrees with the tech-bubble argument, and believes New Zealand's technology firms are being valued appropriately.

"The companies that have emerged in New Zealand over the last couple years, in my view, if these were in the United States or any of these more mature tech markets, we wouldn't be having these conversations around a tech bubble."

He rejects the idea that the company's high share price may not be based on its fundamentals.

He says the company is located in a new, global and high-growth market.

"Is there any doubt about demand and the quality of our products? I don't think so. Have we got a product and is there a market? Yes. Is that market growing fast? Yes. Those are all fundamentals that have really been proven and aren't disputed."

It's still early days, but the company is reaching targets so far. Full-year results are not due out until next week, but the company has already announced it will reach its $21.5m revenue forecast for 2013, and is aiming for $27m in 2014.

"We laid out a plan, and we've delivered everything we've said we would do," Richardson says.

- BusinessDay

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