Over the weekend, 13.4 million documents were leaked to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, detailing offshore holdings from 120,000 public and private bodies, valued at over $10 trillion. This is the second large disclosure of offshore accounts that has rocked private companies and official organisations in recent memory, following the Panama Papers scandal last spring.
While some of the implications are shocking, there is an important technological angle to the discoveries which shouldn’t be forgotten.
A history of cracked safes
Technology has been behind major information leaks – legal, illegal, official or private – for years now. Primarily, tech has played important roles in exposing controversial organisations and operations, and subsequently disseminating information to the wider public.
Arguably the biggest leak in recent memory was perpetrated by Edward Snowden – a former employee of the NSA – who obtained details of an extensive and highly controversial surveillance network involving the United States and its immediate allies, UK included.
Some of the documents detailed how the German Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst) divulged, “massive amounts of intercepted data to the NSA”. Meanwhile, other files revealed that Sweden’s National Defence Radio Establishment (Försvarets radioanstalt, FRA) provided the NSA with data from its diplomatic cables, used by embassies and ambassadors when making calls.
Sweden’s then Minister of Defence, Karin Enström, rebutted a growing public outcry, claiming that the operations had worked within a, “framework with clear legislation, strict controls and under parliamentary oversight.” One year later, in 2014, the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) passed a non-binding resolution calling on Sweden to ensure that the surveillance programme adhered to the European Convention on Human Rights and EU Data Protection Legislation.
More recently, the Panama Papers disclosure in spring 2016 detailed the offshore dealings of several high-profile public figures, such as the father of UK Prime Minister David Cameron. While most of the transactions recorded in the Panama Papers were legal, they raised ethical questions as to whether prominent figures in society were exploiting the law and less-developed countries for their own ends.
With this weekend’s revelations, attention has shifted to figures including Queen Elizabeth II (after millions of pounds from her private estate were found to be in a Cayman Islands fund), Conservative donor Lord Ashcroft (who it was alleged sheltered funds in offshore trusts) and celebrities such as Lewis Hamilton and Bono.
The role of tech in unravelling scandal
Without technology, a lot of this transparency would simply not be available to the wider public.
Despite sparse details, it appears that the Paradise Papers disclosure comes from a hack which stole ‘client data’ from offshore law firm Appleby at some point in 2016.
According to news sources, the leaks from this hack – collectively termed the Paradise Papers – total some 13.4 million documents, comprising 1.4 terabytes in file size. The documents were first assembled by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which approached Appleby with allegations of wrongdoing at the end of October, but were strongly rebuffed.
Whether laws have been broken remains to be seen, but with major players now widely implicated across the internet for the public to see, it is undeniable that this level of accountability, transparency and discussion would not have been achieved without such a data breach.
More files mean more detail
The quantity of files is also a crucial factor in this case, providing incredible levels of detail on the precise transactions that have taken place. Had Edward Snowden’s data heist – executed using a mere pen drive – taken place even 20 years ago, it would have been far more difficult, if not impossible. It’s difficult to imagine Snowden getting very far with wheelbarrows worth of paperwork.
After his theft, various estimates about the extent of Snowden’s breach emerged, and are striking to read. Some of these guesses include:
- 1.7 million NSA files
- 160,000 email and instant-message conversations
- 58,000 British intelligence files
- 15,000 Australian intelligence files
Similarly, last spring’s Panama Papers disclosure of around 11.5 million documents, some dating back to the 1970s was among the world’s largest data leaks, detailing 214,488 entities involved in offshore transactions all tied to one law firm, Mossack Fonseca.
When the information was leaked to Süddeutsche Zeitung (which has been the first recipient of both Papers scandals) SZ had to request permission from the ICIJ to help manage the wealth of information. As Wikipedia reads: “The project represents an important milestone in the use of data journalism, software tools and mobile collaboration.”
Eventually, journalists from 107 organisations in 80 countries were pouring over the data to present it to the public.
Technology also provides what for many is a crucial step in the process of a high-impact story – anonymising identity. While speculative, many of the journalists involved in collaborating on the two Papers scandals will likely have encrypted their communications. Secure and anonymous transfers are becoming an increasingly necessary method for journalists – and indeed sources – keen to protect their privacy at best, and their personal safety at worst. These measures also prevent the controversial information leaking before it is presentable, preventing organisations from taking evasive action.
The Guardian, for example, now offers a step-by-step service for individuals wishing to share words, electronic documents, or physical material with the newspaper, confidentially or entirely anonymously. Similarly, the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) has a recommended communication programmes guide that journalists, keen to protect their privacy, can use, including handy pros and cons.
According to Bastian Obermayer – the German journalist who originally broke the Panama Papers scandal – he is unaware to this day of the identity of the source who sent him the files on Mossack Fonseca. The tipster, who referred to themselves as ‘John Doe‘, told Obermayer that in leaking the documents, their personal safety was compromised: “My life is in danger. No meeting, ever. I want you to report on the material and to make these crimes public.”
In a later manifesto verified and published by SZ, Doe elaborates on his/her reasons for anonymity. They write: “I have watched as one after another, whistleblowers and activists in the United States and Europe have had their lives destroyed by the circumstances they find themselves in after shining a light on obvious wrongdoing.
“Edward Snowden is stranded in Moscow, exiled due to the Obama administration’s decision to prosecute him under the Espionage Act. For his revelations about the NSA, he deserves a hero’s welcome and a substantial prize, not banishment. Bradley Birkenfeld was awarded millions for his information concerning Swiss bank UBS — and was still given a prison sentence by the Justice Department. And there are plenty more examples.
“Legitimate whistleblowers who expose unquestionable wrongdoing, whether insiders or outsiders, deserve immunity from government retribution, full stop. Until governments codify legal protections for whistleblowers into law, enforcement agencies will simply have to depend on their own resources or on-going global media coverage for documents.”
As the Paradise Papers story broke, a Reddit account named ‘PanPthrowaway’ posted on the subreddit r/PanamaPapers with the subject title Do I Have Your Attention Now? The account responded to comments in the post, but was talked down by Reddit users concerned that they were revealing identifiable information. One user even asked if the user behind the mystery account was concerned about a car bomb which killed Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist and anti-corruption activist in mid-October. The PanPthrowaway account has now been deleted.
Spreading the news
Tech also means that stories, spread by global news agencies, travel faster and further than ever. Süddeutsche Zeitung has a reported circulation of 400,000 (as of October 2015), but its two Papers releases have been picked up by the largest international news organisations across the globe, including the BBC, Reuters and Associated Press, meaning that the stories will have reached millions worldwide.
Social media firms with hundreds of millions of users also distribute news with increasing frequency. Three weeks ago, companies including Facebook and Google began publicly trialling new algorithms for news publishers to climb up rankings on their platforms in ways that were fairer financially to the outlets.
An investigation by News Corp found that Google’s previous search algorithms had a very real impact on news agencies, claiming that the Wall Street Journal faced a downturn in traffic of 38% in August because it did not sign onto Google’s programme.
Underscoring the reach of social media, leaders speaking at the NCSC warned last week that cyber-crime’s influences on media platforms constitutes a, “threat to our democracy“. The NCSC warned that manipulation – spread through well-timed leaks, fake news and monitoring users’ activity – can severely pervert western democratic values.
Julian King, European Commissioner for the Security Union, again highlighted the power and reach of social media with the warning: “Let’s be in no doubt that the type of behavioural data we are talking of here is every bit weapons grade material.”
Tech firms involved in the scandal
Alongside all of these technological influences, a number of tech organisations have also been linked in the Paradise Papers. These companies, some of the richest in the world, include: Amazon, Apple Inc., Facebook, Twitter, Uber, and Yahoo!
A report from the BBC claims that Apple, “the world’s most profitable firm”, stored $252 billion in the island of Jersey after a 2013 crackdown on its controversial Irish tax practices. The company denies any wrongdoing, and cites that it is the world’s highest tax paying company, valuing its contributions over the last three years at £26 billion.