Saturday 14 December 2013

Crack Crime With XBRL

crime-sceneOver the last week, the CBI has been reeling under the embarrassment of goof-ups over incorrect information. In the Purulia arms drop case, the warrant had expired. In the case of the two wanted men who are actually in India even as the list given to Pakistan says that they are in Pakistan, the information was always available in the system but somewhere along the way the validation checks did not happen. All of these mistakes could have been avoided with XBRL. The government should seriously consider moving all crime records to XBRL to prevent recurrence of such incidents and, more importantly, to make investigations speedier and subsequent prosecution more effective.

XBRL or eXtensible Business Reporting Language, as its full form is, has been in use in India for the last three years at the RBI. From July onwards, some 30,000 companies will be filing their annual returns in XBRL. SEBI too is all set to start receiving filings in XBRL from mutual funds to start with and has drawn up plans to receive data from all market participants in XBRL.


So, what then is XBRL. Simply put, it is an information standard which is also machine readable, or if one is familiar with the technical term, XML. Except that unlike most other XML standards, this is open source and royalty-free. Nobody owns XBRL, though there are several companies in the world which have written software for XBRL.

Every piece of information leaves a footprint. In the case of Feroze Abdul Rashid Khan, who has been lodged in Mumbai’s Arthur Road jail, the records would have shown that he had been the government’s guest since February 2010. If only the list had been generated from a set of records in XBRL, this information would have jumped out, pointing to the error. Similarly, in the case of Wazhul Kamar Khan, the man living in Thane, the fact is that he is out on bail. His footprints were visible all over the cases registered against him and by simply writing software to match information footprints, this contradiction too would have been caught. Moving the information to XBRL is about much more than merely creating a database of crime records. The XML nature of XBRL makes it machine readable; what comes over and above is the prescription of data standards which spells out how data will be captured fully.

In the most celebrated white-collar crime of recent times, the problems at Satyam would have been detected early, had the filings been in XBRL. It is unlikely that Ramalinga Raju would have allowed a provident fund deduction from the salaries purportedly paid by him to allegedly fictitious employees; amounts that he allegedly siphoned off for his own benefit. Even the JPC probing the telecom scam would do well to use XBRL in its investigation.


Whether it is a white-collar crimes or crimes of any other colour, painstaking investigation requires the piecing together of information that tells a cogent story without inherent contradictions. In short, the footprints must match. With the help of XBRL that task will become a lot easier.It is time the CBI, as the nodal investigative agency, or NATGRID, the National Intelligence Grid, the brainchild of the Home Minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, adopts information standards to make their respective tasks easier. XBRL is still in its early days in many parts of the world, and the focus in many countries continues to be on business and financial reporting. India would be viewed as a pioneer if it looks beyond. The time to do that is now.

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