A glimpse at an enormous trove of leaked records about secret companies and accounts is being opened to the public in hope it will shed light on the murky world of offshore finance.

The information, contained in a new online database released Friday night, has the names of more than 100,000 offshore entities — mainly companies and trusts set up in locales such as the British Virgin Islands and Cook Islands — and the people associated with them.

CBC News has had exclusive Canadian access to the data for months and has determined that it names at least 550 Canadians. Media outlets worldwide have been reporting on the information leak since it came to light in early April, with far-reaching global repercussions.

The online names database was released late Friday night by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and contains a basic subset of the 260 gigabytes of leaked tax-haven files that the Washington-based group obtained and shared with global news organizations, including the CBC.

"What we're doing for the British Virgin Islands, the Cook Islands, and other offshore havens is what's routinely done in many countries around the world — making the control and ownership of companies a matter of public record," said Michael Hudson, a senior editor at the journalism consortium.

"This is about transparency and accountability. There is a growing consensus that no one should be able to own a company secretly. No one should be able to hide in the shadows behind a company or trusts." 

The newly released database shows the names and, where available, the shareholders and directors of offshore companies, and visually maps out links between them.

For example, a search of "Ghermezian" finds the name of Alberta businessman David Ghermezian, president of the West Edmonton Mall, and links him to a British Virgin Islands-registered company called Regal Mega Malls Development Corp . and a group of Chinese, Taiwanese and Canadian entrepreneurs.

Ghermezian has told CBC News his offshore company was a legal joint venture to develop a mega-shopping centre in China, but the project fizzled.

The names database does not contain the much vaster cache of potentially confidential information from the offshore data leak, such as bank account numbers, passport data, telephone numbers, financial transactions and emails.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists said it hopes people will browse the names and tip off reporters to new revelations about people and companies doing business offshore.

"ICIJ believes many of the best stories may come from crowd-sourcing, when readers explore the database," the organization said in a press release.

Offshore companies not necessarily illegal

Under Canadian law, it is not illegal to create an offshore company or trust as long as it is properly declared for tax purposes. There are a variety of reasons for setting one up, though all offshore entities typically enjoy strict secrecy under the laws of the jurisdictions in which they're based.

"We're not saying that everyone in the database has done something wrong," Hudson said. "If you haven't done anything wrong, however, you shouldn't have anything to fear from this disclosure."

CBC News has reported that the leaked files show that a Canadian senator and her husband, one of the country's most prominent class-action lawyers, were beneficiaries of a confidential offshore trust in the Cook Islands that was used to make investments via Bermuda.

High-profile figures, from Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan to an officially bankrupt Swedish real-estate mogul to European banking dynast Élie de Rothschild, have used offshore accounts to hide wealth.  

However, the leaked data also discloses dozens of cases of crooks, money-launderers and even democratically elected officials using the secrecy afforded by tax havens.

As CBC News reported recently, for example, the data shows how Russian criminals used offshore companies set up and administered by a Canadian firm in the Caribbean to launder part of a $230-million heist of the Russian treasury.

Other media outlets have found that the current or past leaders of countries such as Azerbaijan, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, Paraguay, Indonesia, Malaysia and Colombia have ties to offshore companies, sometimes in cases that would present serious conflicts of interest.

"A lot of people will be panicked to wonder if their names are on that sort of list and what it's going to mean for them," said Raymond Baker, president of Global Financial Integrity, a U.S. non-profit that campaigns to stop illicit movements of money.

"Right now there are millions and millions of entities around the world, shell companies where we don't know who owns those entities. This is ridiculous.  If we want to curtail the flow of illicit money, step one is knowing who owns the businesses that we are dealing with," he said.

Tax probes underway

While journalists have their hands on the full set of leaked offshore records, so do national tax agencies. Britain, Australia and the United States announced last month that they've launched what could be the biggest ever international investigation into tax cheats using the data. Britain said it obtained the leaked files in late 2010.

Canada was offered the data by confidential sources for a price sometime before last December, but rejected it due to the Canada Revenue Agency's policy at the time of not paying for such information. The federal government overturned that policy in its recent budget, which ushered in a plan to pay tipsters up to 15 per cent where the CRA recovers more than $100,000 from someone using offshore accounts to dodge their tax obligations.

Hudson said the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is hoping people will use its new database to find leads on other potential abuse of tax havens.

"It's not a panacea. It's not going to tell you everything. But it's a tool," he said.

"It's a starting place for research for average citizens, for journalists, for government officials to start seeing connections and start documenting who's out there and who's using offshore." 

If you have more information on this story, or other investigative tips to pass on, please email investigations@cbc.ca.