On Sunday April 3, documents from a Panama-based firm, Mossack Fonseca, were leaked in what is being called the biggest leak of confidential information ever. The leak amounts to approximately 11.5 million documents or 2.6 terabytes’ worth of data. The leaked documents reveal corruption and shady business dealings of politicians, world leaders, and celebrities. The leak exposes how major banks, law firms, and asset management companies manage the wealth of the world’s most powerful people.
The “Panama Papers,” contain mostly emails, PDF files, and image files belonging to Mossack Fonseca, a leading offshore financial service provider. Mossack Fonseca is one of the world’s leading creators of shell companies, a corporate structure with no active business operations that is often used to hide ownership of assets. Shell companies are used for several reasons including minimal governmental oversight and tax avoidance. The leaked files contains information on 214,000 offshore shell companies connected to people in more than 200 countries.
The leak also reveals information about 72 current or former heads of state, including Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s former leader Muammar Qaddafi, Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
Most of the services the offshore financial industry provides are legal if used by law abiding citizens. However, the Mossack Fonseca documents show that the firm’s customers have included Ponzi schemers, drug kingpins, and tax evaders. The documents show that banks and law firms often failed to follow legal requirements. The firm makes sure their clients are not involved in tax dodging or political corruption. In some cases, the leaked files show offshore middlemen have protected themselves and their clients by concealing transactions or manipulating official records.
A challenge of law enforcers and legislators is how to find and stop criminal behavior when it’s buried under secrecy. Leaks such as the “Panama Papers” have helped to break through the secrecy in the offshore industry. The leaked documents have prompted official investigations in many countries across the world including the United Kingdom, France, Norway, Australia, and New Zealand. The initial reports and information are the first of many potentially incriminating stories to come from the largest data leak of confidential information in journalistic history.