Panama Papers show there’s no place to hide in a data-centric world

5 Apr 2016

A tawdry digital trail mulled over by hundreds of journalists and now a growing army of Reddit volunteers shows secrecy is a 21st-century fairy tale

The only guarantee of secrecy in the 21st century will be to have no secrets. In what is the biggest data set to fall into the hands of journalists, a treasure trove of data on tax avoidance and dodgy dealings by the so-called great and good has been laid bare.

The 2.6 terabyte leak of Panama-based shell company Mossack Fonseca has rocked the establishment worldwide, revealing a tawdry industry that involved banks, legal firms and asset management companies all centred on managing the estates of a motley crew of well-heeled types ranging from FIFA officials to politicians, celebrities, professional athletes, property developers and more.

The revelations have even led to calls for the prime minister of Iceland Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson to step down and brought 10,000 protestors to the streets after leaked documents showed his wife owned a secret offshore company that had a potential claim on the country’s collapsed banks.

It is a tawdry tale of offshore tax havens for rich and powerful individuals, including, it is alleged, Russian president Vladimir Putin and the late father of British prime minister David Cameron, and shows how Mossack Fonseca allegedly helped clients launder money and avoid paying taxes for 40 years.

The unfolding drama could potentially touch nerves in every country.

Panama Papers: the biggest data breach of its kind?

The interesting thing about the Panama Papers is that it signals a new era in terms of data breaches and the impact they can have. This has been labelled by the media as the biggest data breach of its kind in history.

This data, in turn, was quietly studied by more than 400 journalists from more than 100 media organisations in over 80 countries who were part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

They have spent the past year studying more than 11.5m documents relating to Mossack Fonseca and the companies linked to it.

What we are witnessing is merely the tip of the iceberg as more and more data will get analysed and deciphered by not only 400 journalists but a growing army of volunteers on sites like Reddit who are only too happy to stick it to the man.

For example, Reddit is currently recruiting translators who can help translate documents from Spanish, Dutch and Brazilian Portuguese.

Crucially, the entire drama signals a new era for the whistleblower and could dwarf even the Snowden revelations or the Wikileaks Cablegate in 2010.

What is unclear is how the data got out there, was it the work of an insider or whistleblower or the work of a sophisticated hack made possible by the most basic but insidious of phishing attacks?

But what is very clear is this: a new benchmark in how data matters has been established. A digital trail can be a definitive trail.

And the very notion of corporations, banks, legal firms and assorted advisers hiding a digital trail of sensitive breadcrumbs for no one to follow is a fairytale.

Panama city image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years