The Human Factor Behind the Panama Papers Leak

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There’s still much to be learned about the unauthorized release of the so-called Panama Papers, the documents exposing the financial interests of prominent world figures in offshore tax havens. What we know so far is that the release represents the single largest leak of data in history, totaling 2.6 terabytes of information—more than 11 million documents—and surpassing the next largest leak by an order of magnitude. We know that the origin of the information is Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that specializes in legal, trust, intellectual property, and wealth management services. And, we know that the information contained within the Panama Papers is already having a major effect on international politics.  Beyond the resignation of the prime minister of Iceland due to allegations stemming from the leaked information, for example, some Chinese news sources are decrying the papers as a western conspiracy. Additionally, it remains to be seen how implications of links to Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping will affect the domestic situations within Russia and China.

What we don’t know is how this massive trove of information got out of Mossack Fonseca in the first place. Initial reports from the media claimed that a whistleblower, by implication someone inside the company, reached out to a reporter from the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung.  Yesterday, a partner in the firm, Ramon Fonseca said the company was the victim of a hack and not an insider. It is unclear at this point exactly how the information was sent to the German reporter—the reporter will only say that a source contacted him through encrypted chat—or how the insider gained access to it in the first place.  It wouldn’t be the first time a company suffered a major leak due to hacker activity however, it would also be in Mossack Fonseca’s interest to avoid being seen as having an insider threat problem.

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