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Keep a Close Watch on the Panama Papers, the Biggest, Most Damning Data Leak in the History of Journalism

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 6/04/2016 Auditi Guha
WIKILEAKS © alexskopje via Getty Images WIKILEAKS

The Panama Papers. Sounds like a Bond movie only better.
It involves an unprecedented data leak -- 2.6 terabytes (enough to fill 600 DVDs) involving 11.5 million in tax and legal documents -- and the largest collaborative investigation in journalism history involving more than 370 journalists from over 70 countries, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The first reports came in early Sunday from German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung outlining how the world's rich and powerful use tax havens to hide their wealth, which, I hear, is not illegal. Except for the tax evasion part.
The list includes 143 public officials and their families and friends from around the world who used Mossack Fonseca, a law firm and wealth management firm based in Panama with branches in Hong Kong, Miami, Zurich and 42 countries worldwide, to hide billions of dollars.
They include people in Putin's cabinet, prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, the president of Ukraine, the king of Saudi Arabia, the son of Egypt's former president, the children of the president of Azerbaijan and the son of the British prime minister, for starters.
They also include at least 33 people and companies blacklisted by the U.S. government for doing shady business with the likes of Mexican drug lords, terrorist groups like Hezbollah or rogue nations like North Korea.
We are still waiting for details on the U.S. angle, and I can't help wondering if any of the sparring presidential candidates will make the list.
The documents leaked late 2014 include nearly 40 years of data from inside Mossack Fonseca.
Suddeutsche Zeitung reporter Bastian Obermayer received an anonymous tip via encrypted chat, according to news reports.
In the first of six articles posted Sunday, ICIJ and its partners shine a light on the inner workings of the little known firm which is one of the world's top creators of shell companies or corporate structures that can be used to hide ownership of assets.
ICIJ's analysis reveals information about 214,000 offshore companies connected to people in more than 200 countries.
The data includes emails, financial spreadsheets, passports and corporate records revealing the secret owners of bank accounts and companies in 21 offshore jurisdictions, including Nevada, Hong Kong and the British Virgin Islands.
Early responses involved a massive uprising in Iceland calling for PM Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson to resign and a round of denials from Russia.
Partners in the year-long investigation, the BBC and The Guardian have been providing great insights as news continues to roll in.
In India, The Indian Express (a partner in the investigation and my early stomping grounds) named Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (the latter has denied allegations), property tycoons Kushal Pal Singh, Vinod Adani and Sameer Gehlaut (two of whom said they didn't do anything illegal), among the 500 Indians listed.
Slower on the uptake, the U.S. media began to chime in early Monday and I hope to wake up to some serious Pentagon Papers headlines on Tuesday.
There is no doubt that this is going to be an enormous, gigantic, gargantuan deal in months to come as the documents reveal how one firm helped the one percent launder money, dodge sanctions and evade tax with help from accountants, lawyers, banks and trusts. It will uncover hidden trails of corruption and lead to some serious financial and political repercussions.
Remember the Pentagon Papers? That was a mere 7,000-page leak of defense department documents in 1971 that led to the Watergate scandal.
WikiLeaks published the 1.73-gigabyte Cablegate documents in 2010 that sparked the Tunisian revolution and eventually, the Arab Spring.
Those will be peanuts compared to what the Panama Papers are only just beginning to uncover worldwide. And it is, of course, a giant leap in journalism. I just wish I was one of the ICIJ organizations with access to the documents which have not yet been made public.
The age of big data leaks has come of age. Watch closely.

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