'Interested in data?' How the Panama Papers were leaked

By Victoria Craw

"Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in data? I'm happy to share."

Those are the four sentences that led to the biggest data leak in history that has implicated 12 leaders and led to mass protests and investigations from Iceland to the UK and New Zealand.

On Monday, the world was rocked by revelations from more than 11 million files leaked from law firm Mossack Fonesca proving the financial dealings of everyone from drug lords to paedophiles, world leaders, athletes and FIFA officials.

The Panamanian law firm has offices worldwide, reportedly with 600 employees in 42 countries, and specialises in offshore financial services, such as setting up shell companies.

Now the team behind the 2.6 terabytes of data described as "more than anything you have ever seen" have revealed how it all came about through an encrypted message from a confidential source that has never been seen in the flesh.

"I've never seen the source in person. We've been talking to each other via an encrypted chat," said Suddeutsche Zietung's deputy head of investigations Bastian Obermayer.

"I very openly asked him why he's doing this. He says he thinks they have to stop what they're doing," he explained in a video detailing background to the leak.

The source told the German newspaper he wanted to "make these crimes public" and went on to provide nearly five million emails, two million PDF files and more than one million images relating to everyone from Chinese President Xi Jinping to close associates of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The German team shared its findings with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) who created a database to enable reporters to search the sea of information.

Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned today after information was leaked about him in the Panama Papers.
Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned today after information was leaked about him in the Panama Papers.

They met in Washington, Munich, London and Lillehammer with reporters from around the world for the collaboration that eventually included 400 people and 100 media organisations organised into teams on topics like Russia, Iceland or FIFA.

Fellow journalist Frederick Obermaier said the team barely slept in the lead up to the release of the information that dwarfs the scale of Wikileaks and Luxembourg scandals in terms of size.

"You start to feel a little nervous when you realise one leak is going to expose them all and that it all started at Suddeutsche Zietung," he said.

"We haven't slept much at all. The whole team has been working around the clock on print production, videos and the digital edition. And of course this is a very exciting moment for us. We're now going to see how our readers react to these stories."

Untangling the web

The team behind the leak has prepared stories for two weeks but it could take months to exhaust the huge tranche of information containing proof of complex deals involving the world's wealthiest and most private people.

Mr Obermaier said they began searching for specific names and moved towards associates, middlemen and family members to gradually build up a picture over time.

One such example is Putin's close friend Sergei Roldugin. The cellist has likened himself to a "brother" of the Russian president and said he "doesn't have millions".

However the files show he received tens of millions in payments from various companies, immediately raising suspicions he is acting as a proxy for the Russian leader.

Opening offshore accounts is not illegal and Mossack Foensca insists the firm is "beyond reproach", however it specialises in setting up shell companies with proxy directors that can make their true purpose impossible to see.

The company said it regarded the leak as theft and always followed the "letter and spirit" of the law when it comes to contracts and accounts.

"Because we do, we have not once in nearly 40 years of operation been charged with criminal wrongdoing. We're proud of the work we do, notwithstanding recent and wilful attempts by some to mischaracterise it.

"Our services are regulated on multiple levels, often by overlapping agencies, and we have a strong compliance record."

Frederick Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer have published a book on the issue Panama Papers.

- news.com.au

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