Last week’s Panama Papers makes it official: the era of “forced transparency” is now fully upon us. These five facts explain how we got here.
WikiLeaks was first established in 2006; the site allows users around the world to submit classified and restricted documents anonymously. The WikiLeaks staff, under the direction of its controversial editor-in-chief Julian Assange, determines what is ultimately published. 2010 was WikiLeaks’ banner year: the organization released 90,000 classified records detailing military operations in Afghanistan and another 400,000 secret US military logs describing operations in Iraq. WikiLeaks published another 1.73 gigabytes worth of classified State Department communications over the following months.
To date, WikiLeaks has published more than 10 million “documents and associated analyses.” For some, WikiLeaks is the future of investigative journalism; for others, it’s an easy outlet for disgruntled military and government personnel to post sensitive information that, in some cases, can endanger the lives of others. But what’s clear now is that Wikileaks was only the beginning.
2. Edward Snowden
WikiLeaks also played a significant role in the Edward Snowden saga. In June 2013, the former NSA contractor leaked 200,000 classified documents to journalists from the Guardian, detailing the NSA’s extensive collection of Americans’ telephone records and communications surveillance of American allies. All told, Snowden is believed to have made off with more than 1.5 million classified documents, an estimated 60 gigabytes of data. WikiLeaks helped facilitate the leak, paying for Snowden’s lodgings when he fled the U.S. and sending top advisors to assist him.
Snowden justified his actions by explaining that “I believe in the principle declared at Nuremberg, in 1945: ‘Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.’” His critics counter that despite the hyperventilation of its detractors and for all its faults, 21st century America bears little resemblance to Nazi Germany. Democracy is very far from a perfect system of government, but it’s the model that holds the most people accountable. Snowden bypassed that system to do what he thought was right. Snowden would surely counter that different people are entitled to different views on what’s “right.”
3. Ashley Madison
Case in point: the Ashley Madison hack. In July 2015, a hacker collective known as “The Impact Team” stole 300 gigabytes of user data from Ashley Madison, a website that purports to connect people seeking extramarital affairs. It would publish 10 gigabytes of that data, which included the email addresses of 36 million subscribers.
The group claimed two motivations: first, to highlight that the “full delete” service the website offered (and charged $20 for) was a sham—the company continued to store information on its servers even after customers had paid. Second, the group criticized the website’s message of promoting adultery. Put another way, these hackers took it upon themselves to publicly reveal practices they found morally objectionable with little regard for the millions of lives they upended, including those of the family members of subscribers who were guilty of nothing. The media treated this episode as a frivolous story about the public shaming of wealthy adulterers. Not enough attention was paid to the precedent being set. What’s to stop an anti-abortion hacker group from stealing and publishing the names of women who have had abortions?
4. Sony Pictures
Forced transparency doesn’t just empower individuals; it also empowers governments, allowing them to exert much greater influence than their military or economic power would otherwise allow. Sony planned to release the silly action-comedy “The Interview” in late 2014, with a plot that centered on an assassination attempt against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. A hacker group that called itself the “Guardians of Peace”—believed to have been sponsored by Pyongyang—demanded that Sony pull the film, which the North Korean government described as “an act of war” in a letter to the United Nations. When Sony refused, the hacker group shut down Sony’s IT systems and released roughly 11 terabytes of data, revealing sensitive internal communications, salary information and the social security numbers of 47,000 Sony employees.
Sony eventually decided to release the film straight to digital, but the damage was done. As in the Ashley Madison case, media coverage focused on the more juvenile aspects of the story—the uncensored emails of Hollywood elites—and missed the bigger picture. Proponents of forced transparency often hail the practice as a victory for the underdog against the powerful. In this case, it offered proof that one angry government could harness the power of technology to suppress free speech in other countries.
5. Panama Papers
And now we have the Panama Papers, which began when an unnamed source reached out to a German newspaper, claiming to have access to the confidential files of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. This still-unnamed source ultimately provided 2.6 terabytes of information or 11.5 million documents. More than 400 reporters spent months sifting through these documents; the secret files have so far implicated 140 politicians in more than 50 countries, connecting them to numerous offshore companies across 21 different tax havens. The Panama Papers have already forced the resignation of the Icelandic prime minister; expect more political fallout.
For the record, most of the politicians cited in the Panama Papers haven’t done anything illegal; not every offshore account is used for tax evasion or money laundering. But they reveal numerous conflicts of interests which are difficult for political leaders to explain to their constituents.
“Forced transparency” is neither inherently good nor bad. It’s simply a fact of digital life. Communications technology in the 21st century is like a megaphone, broadcasting much more information and at a faster pace than ever before. Forced transparency is the logical extension of that, pushing it to extremes. And it has tremendous potential to destabilize individuals, families, corporation, and governments. Each new revelation seems to involve more information and to implicate more people. In a world awash in data, virtually no one is immune to its impact.