Data journalism is changing the balance of power

The leak known as the Panama Papers is the largest unauthorized disclosure in history. It involves over one hundred news organizations led by Süddeutsche Zeitung in cooperation with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) who analyzed over eleven million documents, totaling 2.6 terabytes of data, in a coordinated release unprecendented in scale.

Leaks of this significance are becoming easier to pull off than ever before, especially within complex organizations like the NSA, the State Department, or an international law firm with many potential sources of access – contractors, interns, or employees who feel compelled to release information to the public.

This event is still in its early stages; only about one hundred fifty of the total eleven million documents have been released, but the rest are soon to come. The fallout is likely to be immense, and probably more impactful than the Wikileaks or Snowden disclosures. In an incredible moment shortly after the leak, the (now former) Icelandic Prime Minister, when asked about his affiliation with an offshore holding company tied to tax evasion, simply walked out of the interview:

The geographic scale of the event is remarkable. Here’s a quick glance to put things into perspective:

And the size of the raw data itself is impressive. Look at this comparison with the trove of documents leaked during Wikileaks’ “Cablegate”:

Then again, 2.6 terabytes ain’t what it used to be – not quite USB drive material, but a hard drive about the size of a grilled cheese would do the trick, and only the most restrictive IT security policies could have any chance of stopping it from being whisked out of the building.

It’s unclear whether the forced transparency made possible by these events will actually discourage the use of offshore shell companies, which are on their own completely legal. But leaks like the State Department cables or the Panama Papers are almost certain to continue at an ever-increasing scale, whether world leaders and their apparatchiks like it or not.

The frictionless nature of digital data, and its urge to be free might be viewed as a kind of disinfectant of the worst kinds of secrecy: those that enrich authoritarian regimes and enable corruption. And even the mightiest governments are almost entirely powerless to stop it.

Data journalism, as it’s become known, is quickly becoming the single most important antidote to illegal corporate or government activity. What’s more, its power is felt even without actual disclosures taking place; because data can so easily be copied, anonymously shared, and distributed across borders, even the possibility of a leak is a significant deterrent to behavior previously shrouded by secrecy.

This is a major coup for the ICIJ, which has positioned itself as a more journalistic alternative to Wikileaks, and without the baggage of Julian Assange’s outsized persona. This event comes on the heels of the group’s previous disclosures including its so-called Offshore Leaks, Lux Leaks, and Swiss Leaks.

As an aside, and what amounts to a story in itself, nearly eight hours later, CNN, The New York Times, WSJ, WaPo, CBC, Fox News, among others, had made no mention of the disclosure. When they finally released a story, the New York Times declined to link to either the ICIJ or any of the news organizations involved, or even to the documents themselves.

As of the following morning, mentions on The New York Times website were essentially buried. Whether these omissions are a gesture toward their exclusion from the group is anyone’s guess.

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