Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen: Panama Papers leak changes our knowledge of the world

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Only in the digital age could so much sensitive information be obtained.
It is possible the data was collected from the outside as it left and entered the network and traversed the internet.
It is possible the data was collected from the outside as it left and entered the network and traversed the internet.

There are information leaks, and there is the Panama Papers leak, which is gigantic compared to past data spills.

Somehow, 2.6 terabytes of data, including financial transactions and trusts used by wealthy dictators, criminals and unethical companies, ended up in the hands of journalists around the world.

That's almost five million emails and 11.5 million files such as databases, PDF and text documents, images and more. Until now, the biggest leaks have been at the most a few gigabytes in size, which by itself is plenty of data; this is five to 10 times the size of previous involuntary data sharing incidents.

One Panama Papers story that I hope we'll read one day is how exactly the leaker spirited away such a large amount of data without anyone noticing.

It's not just getting the 2.6TB physically out of the Mossack Fonseca law firm's offices, over the internet or using, for instance, external hard drives, but accessing all the different files which most likely would've been on different servers, and perhaps not even stored locally.

Only someone in a very privileged position with full access to the data could have compiled the mass of information and even then, it's hard to see how that person wasn't discovered as it would have taken quite some time and been likely to have been spotted.

Likewise, automating the data collection with a piece of software running on the servers would have been difficult to hide in the long-run - and copying terabytes of data would take a while.

It is, of course, possible that the data was collected from the outside as it left and entered Mossack Fonseca's network and traversed the internet. Such collection would need nation-state interception capabilities but if a well-resourced government agency wanted to create a massive stir, for good or for bad reasons, what a spectacular way to do it.

Either way, the Panama Papers represent a mind-boggling data breach. Going out on a limb, the data itself probably wasn't encrypted - most of it is emails and databases, and very few people bother to scramble individual messages and files securely.

Sifting through such a large trove of data is a formidable task as well, and the information in it would have to be verified as well before stories are written. These are some very wealthy individuals we're talking about, and they're touchy about having negative things written about them and have access to very expensive lawyers.

Predictably enough, Mossack Fonseca said everything they've been doing for the past few decades was above board.

Also, the law firm could "confirm the parties in many of the circumstances you cite are not and have never been clients of Mossack Fonseca".

That's a good defence, one which Mossack Fonseca may have shot down itself with a thinly veiled legal threat against the Guardian (tinyurl.com/nzh-mossackfonseca) for using unlawfully obtained information and documentation, which in turn could point to the documents being kosher.

What's fascinating is that while the amount of data is enormous and a struggle for journalists to go through, the Panama Papers story couldn't have been written before IT became an integral part of our lives.

Without computers and digital storage, making off with anywhere near the amount of information found in the Panama Papers would have been nigh impossible, let alone generating the mountain of data in the first place, and analysing it with software tools used by hundreds of journalists around the world.

We're reading and sharing their analysis via the internet, as soon as it is published. Not days or weeks after, as in the paper era, and the stories will be around for years to come and form part of a secondary information source that's searchable by everyone.

The Panama Papers and prior leaks have changed our knowledge of the world and history, and for that we need to thank technology.

- NZ Herald

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Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Juha Saarinen is a technology journalist and writer living in Auckland. Apart from contributing to the New Zealand Herald over the years, he has written for the Guardian, Wired, PC World, Computerworld and ITnews Australia, covering networking, hardware, software, enterprise IT as well as the business and social aspects of computing. A firm believer in the principle that trying stuff out makes you understand things better, he spends way too much time wondering why things just don’t work.

Read more by Juha Saarinen

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