Wednesday, April 6, 2016

How Reporters Pulled Off the Panama Papers, the Biggest Leak in Whistleblower History

When Daniel Ellsberg photocopied and leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, those 7,000 pages of top secret Vietnam War documents represented what was then the biggest whistleblower leak in history—a couple dozen megabytes if it were contained in a modern text file. Almost four decades later, WikiLeaks in 2010 published Cablegate, a world-shaking, 1.73 gigabyte collection of classified State Department communications that was almost a hundred times bigger.

If there’s some Moore’s Law of Leaks, however, it seems to be exponential. Just five years have passed since WikiLeaks’ Cablegate coup, and now the world is grappling with a whistleblower megaleak on a scale never seen before: 2.6 terabytes, well over a thousandfold larger.

On Sunday, more than a hundred media outlets around the world, coordinated by the Washington, DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, released stories on the Panama Papers, a gargantuan collection of leaked documents exposing a widespread system of global tax evasion. The leak includes more than 4.8 million emails, 3 million database files, and 2.1 million PDFs from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that, according to analysis of the leaked documents, appears to specialize in creating shell companies that its clients have used to hide their assets.

“This is pretty much every document from this firm over a 40-year period,” ICIJ director Gerard Ryle told WIRED in a phone call, arguing that at “about 2,000 times larger than the WikiLeaks state department cables,” it’s indeed the biggest leak in history.

Neither the ICIJ nor any of the reporters it’s worked with have made the leaked data public. But the scandal resulting from their reporting has already touched celebrities, athletes, business executives and world leaders. The documents trace $2 billion of hidden money tied to Vladimir Putin through accounts held in the names of family members and his celebrated musician friend Sergei Roldugin. Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson is facing demands from the previous Icelandic prime minister that he resign after the Mossack Fonseca documents showed that Gunnlaugsson may have failed to disclose ownership of a stake in certain Icelandic banks under the government’s rules for officials. And the leaks drag FIFA officials back into the news, showing that even an ethics lawyer for the world soccer body hadfinancial ties to another FIFA official already accused of corruption.

But beyond those revelations—and there will likely be more as the reporting around the Panama Papers continues—the leak represents an unprecedented story in itself: How an anonymous whistleblower was able to spirit out and surreptitiously send journalists a gargantuan collection of files, which were then analyzed by more than 400 reporters in secret over more than a year before a coordinated effort to go public.

by Andy Greenberg, Wired |  Read more:
Image: Naqiewe/Getty Images