The Panama Papers and the box of cookies: Tracking the technology behind the leak

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One of the most fascinating aspects of the Panama Papers investigation is the technology involved. The extent and the international complexity of the tax avoidance, tax evasion and money laundering would have been impossible without the electronic transfers, databases and encrypted communications available to contemporary financial institutions.

Even more important for the investigation is that all of those byzantine transactions were recorded and archived as 2.6 terabytes of digital data that could, these days, be copied onto a hard drive the size of a box of Girl Guide cookies. It would be difficult for the whistleblower, John Doe, to sneak out of the Panama law firm, Mossack Fonseca, with dozens of boxes of paper. Conrad Black tried that a few years back, and look where that got him. 

And, certainly John Doe would have had a much harder time remaining John Doe, and not a named patriot/traitor like Edward Snowden, without his ability to hide his identity behind the blanket of anonymity afforded him via the onion layers of the Tor network. As well, John Doe and his first contact, Bastian Obermayer, a reporter at the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, used encrypted emails and hopped from one online communication method to another using coded greetings right out of spycraft to confirm each other's identities.

But I'm most impressed with the technology the 400 journalists at 100 media outlets used to unpack the transactions between hundreds of shell companies in dozens of countries. 

The 12-month investigation was co-ordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The undertaking, called Project Prometheus, used a custom-built network and database named iHub to co-ordinate the reporters' work and to share discoveries and the documents themselves. iHub was heavily encrypted and was protected by 30-digit passcodes. That length of passcode is impossible to crack, unless you have a very fast supercomputer and a few thousand years. 

Almost all of the 11.5-million documents went through an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) process to make them fully searchable by the reporters working feverishly to make sense of the connections and transactions. And, to be clear, that is a metric buttload of raw material -- 1,500 times larger than the treasure trove that was the 2010 Wikileaks release of U.S. diplomatic cables. 

Finally, technology has played an important role in how the various news organs involved reported on their discoveries. They've used animations (using kids and piggybanks), interactive infographics, video, text, samples of the source documents and social media to explain complex transactions and concepts. 

All of that has made people care about arcane financial dealings that could have been as dry as the annual report of a funeral home. Already Iceland's prime minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, has resigned over accusations of his conflict of interests because of offshore accounts held by Gunnlaugsson and his wife. The Chinese government is censoring any articles about the Panama Papers which have linked Chinese officials, including Chinese President Xin Jinping, to offshore transactions revealed in the data dump. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron, is in hot water over an offshore account his father set up in Panama. All over the world, people are discovering how the other 1% live, and we don't like it much.

All in all it's a remarkable feat of international media co-operation. The irony that the same technology that allows the offshore shell games to play out was also used to unscramble the unsavoury carny game is rich indeed. Perhaps not super rich, but rewarding enough because we now know that when your fiscal funny business can fit in a box of cookies, you can't cover your assets anymore.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Girl Guides of Canada/flickr

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