How Did The Panama Papers Leak Happen? The Massive Journalistic Effort Started With Just One Person

If you've been following the news over the last week, there's a good chance you've heard of the brewing international scandal that's sent shockwaves through governments, media institutions, and corporations alike. It's all thanks to the leaking of a trove of documents known as the Panama Papers, which revealed a web of powerful people across the world allegedly sheltered their money in offshore accounts, as a means to avoid taxation, or hide the true extent of their wealth. So, how did the Panama Papers leak happen?

It's a scandal of massive proportions, already entangling no less than Russian president Vladimir Putin, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, members of the Chinese government, and even forcing the resignation of (now former) Iceland prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. So, how exactly did we get here? As The New York Times' Liam Stack and Nicola Clark expertly detailed in their stories on the scandal, the whole thing started when an anonymous source contacted a pair of journalists with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung with a rather subtle question: "Interested in data?"

The journalists in question, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, were indeed interested, and spent months attempting to independently verify the complicated transactions and shady dealings evidenced by the leaker's documents. In total, the Panama Papers reportedly take up about 2.6 terabytes of space — a single terabyte, mind you, consists of 1,000 gigabytes.

As a result, Obermayer and Obermaier decided to spread the work around — they contacted the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which agreed to assemble an international team to help parse the data. As Fortune's Matthew Ingram details, by the end of the process they had hundreds of journalists on the job, hailing from more than 100 media institutions around the world.

As for why the data leaked in the first place, well, that's been spoken to by the person in question. The leaker reportedly made his or her intentions pretty clear, giving Obermayer the following explanation after revealing the data: "I want to make these crimes public." In other words, the same sort of rationale that motivated famed NSA leaker Edward Snowden to take the plunge.

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In a certain sense, that's the same answer that almost any leaker is going to give you if you ask them why they did it — depending on whether or not the subject matter is criminal in nature or not, obviously. Leaking is the great equalizer, the last defense of common people, employees, and officials to spill the beans when they stumble upon something wrong.

And while the identity of the Panama Papers leaker is still unknown — he or she reportedly initially told Obermayer that his or her life was in danger — it's clear that the more than 40-year track record of the law firm in question must have starting tugging on someone's conscience. It's a considerable act of courage, considering the scope and magnitude of the information that's now been spilled into public view. And hopefully, whoever did it will now be able to feel satisfied, secure in the knowledge that they blew the doors completely off this thing.