Wired Details How the Panama Papers Collaboration Went Down

How 100 news orgs around the world helped each other sort through millions of documents.

Past a certain point, quantity becomes hard to conceptualize. Comparisons help, to a point. When the D.C.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), working in coordination with German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung and over 100 other news organization, broke their Panama Papers investigation into the offshore tax shelters of the rich and powerful, it announced that the data leak of 11.5 million documents was the “biggest leak of inside information in history.”

That number represents 40 years worth of documents from Mossack Fonseca, which ICIJ calls “one of the world’s top creators of shell companies.” It includes information on more than 214,000 offshore organizations serving people in over 200 countries. The collection of documents is in over 25 languages.

It screamed for a collaborative effort.

Wired’s Andy Greenberg detailed how that effort grew from one anonymous source contacting one publication to, in the ICIJ’s words again, “the largest cross-border media collaboration ever undertaken.”

“The Panama Papers leak began, according to ICIJ director [Gerard] Ryle, in late 2014, when an unknown source reached out to the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, which had reported previously on a smaller leak of Mossack Fonseca files to German government regulators,” writes Greenberg. He continues:

A Suddeutsche Zeitung reporter named Bastian Obermayer says that the source contacted him via encrypted chat, offering some sort of data intended “to make these crimes public.” But the source warned that his or her “life is in danger,” was only willing to communicate via encrypted channels, and refused to meet in person.

“How much data are we talking about?” Obermayer asked.

“More than you have ever seen,” the source responded, according to Obermayer.

Since Süddeutsche Zeitung worked with ICIJ on a smaller but similar leaks investigation in the past, it called them in for help on this one. Other pubs were invited once the docs were in.

The ICIJ’s developers then built a two-factor-authentication-protected search engine for the leaked documents, the URL for which they shared via encrypted email with scores of news outlets including the BBC, The Guardian, Fusion, and dozens of foreign-language media outlets. The site even featured a real-time chat system, so that reporters could exchange tips and find translation for documents in languages they couldn’t read. “If you wanted to look into the Brazilian documents, you could find a Brazilian reporter,” says Ryle. “You could see who was awake and working and communicate openly. We encouraged everyone to tell everyone what they were doing.” The different media outlets eventually held their own in-person meetings, too, in Washington, Munich, London, Johannesburg and Lillehammer, Ryle says.

Those publications and the journalists working on the leaks managed, in all the time spent leading up to yesterday’s published investigation, not to leak any of the documents, and they’re hoping to keep it that way:

“We’re not WikiLeaks,” Ryle told Greenberg. “We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly.”