Since the leak of the data trove of off-shore financial account information that has come to be known as the "Panama Papers" the world has gotten a rare leak into the world of quicksilver capital that flows in and out of the pockets of the rich, powerful and in some cases, corrupt on a global scale. It cannot be underscored how important the revelations that are coming from the law firm Mossack Fonseca's file going back to 1979 will likely be for transparency efforts around the world.
Equally, through the efforts of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), investigative journalists around the world will benefit from the creation of collaborative investigative infrastructure that has been created to handle the giant size of data and documents that the Panama Papers provided. Never before have so many journalists been able to work in such a collaborative fashion on a global basis, and we will only be of benefit from this collaborative infrastructure as the press (in whatever form it becomes) seek to keep us all honest.
(Give this On the Media podcast on the efforts the ICIJ took to establish a new infrastructure for all the journalists working on the Panama Papers a listen. It's an amazing and inspiring effort that will only be a positive one for all investigative journalists working today.)
Wonderful. The sun shines bright on many corners that have lived in darkness for years, and we'll all likely be the better for it.
So why does it matter how we got our hands on the Panama Papers and who's responsible for it? And why does it matter that nobody appears to be asking about this?
We live in a world that has become simultaneously globalized and data dependent. Perhaps at no point previous in our collective history has access to data become so important, and those who control such access and such data been in positions of great power over so many. Undoubtedly the contents of the Panama Papers represent such an enormous source of power and influence for whomever could access its data.
As we are witnessing now, a great many of the individuals and organizations included in the Panama Papers faced the prospect of significant public, financial and possibly criminal damage if the information was to be made public. There was a significant potential for using such information to encourage the vulnerable to undertake a variety of actions that would be in the interests of a specific individual/group, potentially at the expense of the public. The simple truth is that we don't know what efforts may or may not have been taken to use the information to leverage actions from those implicated in the Panama Papers before they were given to the press. We know almost nothing of what was done with the Panama Papers information prior to its release, and frankly, there's not much indication that anyone in the media has done much to ask.
The manner in which the leak of the Panama Papers has taken place has led many press writers to reach for sexy, dramatic speculation on the source that frequently has drawn comparisons to wonder hacker Lisbeth Salander, heroine of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. It's no surprise. It's amazingly satisfying to think that there's someone out there with uber-blackhat hacking skills is functioning as some sort of benevolent avenging cyber-angel, exposing the dark world of tax evasion and protecting those who'll never have enough money to even warrant trying to engage in a tax evasion scheme. It's a nice thought.
Unfortunately, we have absolutely no proof that is the situation in the case of the Panama Papers. Indeed, history would seem to suggest quite the opposite, that the person(s) involved in the leak had a variety of motives, some of which may very will have been less than honourable. The more the narrative that this leak came from a selfless and benevolent agent is allowed to take root in the public mind, the less we're likely to seriously look at the question of what were the motives of the individual(s) who engineered this enormous leak, of who potentially stood to benefit (beyond the public at large), and of what efforts were made to secure this information in the first place.
It's nice to believe that there are wonderful white hat and black hat hackers out there who's sole mission in life is to keep the world honest, but that removes our collective need to think critically about the information we receive and why we are receiving it. Yes, it's fun to go deep diving into the bank accounts of the wealthy (through legitimate means or otherwise), but has anyone asked the question of whether any of this information may have been used in an effort to get a major political leader, captain of industry or influential thought leader to otherwise act against their/our interests for the benefit of those holding the Panama Papers information? Has anyone asked how this individual(s) came in possession of this vast trove of data in the first place? Was it through simple hacking of a gigantic global law firm's systems? Did they have an inside man? If so, was that individual acting willingly? Were they paid off, or possibly coerced through other means? How far were the individual(s) who engineered the theft of this data prepared to go to gain access to this information? (It's important to remember that it was theft, at least until the data was given over to the press, at which time it became a leak the benefits the public good by virtue of its sheer size.)
The point is we don't know. We don't have any solid answers to any of these questions, but already the press involved are content to make sexy trailers promoting the Panama Papers to top their stories. Trailers which absolutely promote a narrative of a benevolent hacker, whether they intended to or not. The answers to these questions are answers that we need to know. They are answers that are at least as valuable and important to the public as the contents of the Panama Papers themselves. Those answers are the context by which we're all coming to understand the Panama Papers, and frankly at the moment we're all flying blind -- after more than a year of 400+ investigative journalists working on the Panama Papers.
There are too many major stakeholders and power players in the world of cyber theft and espionage who are capable of executing a theft on this scale not to ask who among them may have at least a bit of an interest in things playing out in this manner with this content. (That includes both state and non-state actors.) Unfortunately, it seems that the only person to be seriously raising this question happens to be the rather eccentric founder of McAffee Systems, the major anti-virus protection company -- John McAffee. Mr McAffee rightly raises the question of whether we're all looking the other way on one of the world's largest incidents of cyber-theft, and if this vulnerability exists for such a large law firm, what does it mean for the vulnerability of other major sources of significant and important data around the globe.
We may dance around the bonfire of the vanities that the Panama Papers have become, but little thought has been given to who set it, what motives they truly posses for doing so, and what will constitute their next target. I would truly like to believe that this is all the result of an employee of Massack Fonseca who had a major crisis of conscious and felt a driving need to disclose his firm's wrongdoings. However, until someone actually proves that this was the case, I don't think we can forgo any question of who engineered the leak of the Panama Papers and what was their motive(s) in doing so.
Critical thinking in an age where the context of information often is as important as the information itself. Anything less means we're only getting half the story.