The Panama Papers: Could it Happen to You?

Mark O'Neill 22-04-2016

Another day, another leak, another scandal. Except this one has made Wikileaks pale in comparison and made Julian Assange’s hair stand on end. For now, Wikileaks isn’t big bad boy on the block.


Confidence and trust in our elected leaders has never been very high. We’ve always assumed they have been on the take and squirrelling money away for a rainy day. But the recent leak of what has become known as the “Panama Papers” has proven what we previously assumed.


Are you not sure what it all means? That’s why we’re here to explain it to you.

What Are The Panama Papers?

The Panama Papers is a huge data dump of 11.5 million confidential business files. The files were the legal property of a company based in Panama called Mossack Fonseca, and they gave descriptive details of over 200,000 offshore companies that were hiding money from the taxman, as well as money gained from drug smuggling and fraud. Many people connected with these companies were very high-profile public figures, and Panama is a very well-known and popular tax haven.

So for those named, it didn’t look good at all to be caught red-handed.



The files came to light after an anonymous whistleblower handed the files to a German newspaper journalist, Bastian Obermayer. Under the alias “John Doe”, they handed over more than 40 years’ worth of files, without ever asking for payment. All they asked for was a guarantee that communication be done over encrypted Not Just For Paranoids: 4 Reasons To Encrypt Your Digital Life Encryption isn’t only for paranoid conspiracy theorists, nor is it just for tech geeks. Encryption is something every computer user can benefit from. Tech websites write about how you can encrypt your digital life, but... Read More apps, and that there never be any face-to-face meetings.

“The source thinks that this law firm in Panama is doing real harm to the world, and the source wants to end that” – Bastian Obermayer (Journalist, Süddeutsche Zeitung)

The files were far too many for one newspaper to handle (there was over 2.5 terabytes of data to go through). So the files were organized by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), who distributed files to 400 investigative journalists in 80 countries. It was a massive joint effort on a global scale, and it helped to make sense of it all, and bring the stories out as quickly as possible. Something like that makes you realize the full power of the international media, if they all collaborate every now and then to bring out a story of huge public interest. The politicians should be very very afraid.

Who Has It Implicated? Anyone I Know Of?

Where do you want to start?


At the time of publication, it dropped six current heads of state in the crap (Argentina, Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates). But then the real fun begins. The leaked lists also included close relatives and friends of more than forty other heads of state. The most prominent being Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose buddies seem to profit rather well from being in general proximity to good ol’ Vlad.


Also in a rather tight corner is British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has faced repeated calls for his resignation. An online petition to the UK Government demanding a General Election has, at the time of writing, received over 161,000 signatures. Although the government has responded by saying it isn’t going to happen.

If you throw in government officials from all levels of the totem pole, and former Italian “Bunga Bunga” Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, you end up with a jolly melee of greedy public servants with their hands in the cash register.


But interestingly, the ICIJ has chosen to withhold some of the documents “for ethical reasons”. It makes you wonder who is being protected and why. And what do they mean by “ethical reasons”?

Oh Dear, Any Casualties So Far?

One major scalp has been claimed in the scuffle. The Icelandic Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, has resigned. Although he did not go quietly, as he initially refused to accept any wrongdoing had been done.


But after a public demonstration of almost 25,000 people, and a refusal by the Icelandic President to dissolve Parliament, Gunnlaugsson finally stepped down. Although his office claims he hasn’t actually resigned, just “stepped aside for an unspecified period”.


Right… so resigned, then.

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Dozens and dozens of other people have been implicated and their various governments have pledged to investigate the matter. However, the whole matter has not gone down very well with the state of Panama, who think that their international image has been unfairly tarnished by this incident. Do you agree? Or do they only have themselves to blame?

Could This Happen Closer To Home? The “US Papers” Perhaps?

The Panama Papers were the result of presumably an inside man (as opposed to a hacker from the outside), who decided that the public needed to be aware of the sheer hypocrisy of their elected (and unelected in some cases) leaders. So could this happen, say in the US, or somewhere in Europe? Of course. As long as there are disgruntled employees, there will always be another potential “John Doe” ready to hand over documents to the international media. And as the ICIJ has proven, when need be, they can mobilize investigative journalists in numerous countries to sift through the data and make sense of it all.


We live in an era where leaks and data dumps Keep Up With The Latest Data Leaks - Follow These 5 Services & Feeds Read More have become commonplace. Wikileaks started the trend, and it hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down Porn Viewing Habits Could Be the Next Big Leak: Here's What To Do A software engineer has recently warned that you should expect your Internet history, specifically any adult sites you've visited, to be leaked. What can you do about this? Read More . The Internet has made it easier for whistleblowers to find a secure Internet connection and upload one huge file. That huge file could end up toppling powerful people and laying waste to huge multinational companies.

Bear in mind that there are many other high-profile figures out there in the world — actors, actresses, models, footballers, other sports figures, authors, singers, bands, even the Pope! They all have bank accounts and they could all potentially have something to hide. Just because they say they are broke doesn’t make it so. They expect their banks and other financial institutions to hide their dirty secrets.

But what if a John Doe working there saw a bank balance and decided to reveal it to the press? In order to escape detection and remain anonymous, they would have to reveal a whole load of unrelated bank accounts to hide the one they really wanted to show. One of those unrelated bank accounts could be yours, and you may have money in there which has not been declared to the taxman, or which you have earned from ill-gotten gains.

Think about that. You might wake up one day and discover that the next John Doe, in order to hide their identity, has just outed you to the international press. And right now, there’s nothing anyone can do about that. If you want to know more about the Panama Papers as they unfold, subscribe to this subreddit where news is being collated and crowdsourced on a minute-by-minute basis.

What do you think? Are you concerned about the Panama Papers? Tell us in the comments.

Image Credits: Yellow Blank Envelope by Mega Pixel via Shutterstock, Panama Papers – Vector Open Stock. Sigmundur Davíð GunnlaugssonFramsókn, [CC BY 2.0], Silvio Berlusconi – European People’s Party [CC BY 2.0], David Cameron – See page for author [OGL], Vladimir [CC BY 4.0], Petro Porchenko – Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons – cc-by-sa-3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0], Shadow Man – PixaBay

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  1. Anonymous
    April 22, 2016 at 9:16 pm

    The fact is, they are all corrupt, Cameron with his "gift" of £100,000 TWICE from his mother.
    But let me guess, the powers that be will (and already are) starting to squash this.

    The world is a beautiful place to live in, but it's the cancers of society like these people, which makes it so damn horrible.

    • James Bruce
      April 24, 2016 at 11:13 am

      There's many things that are thoroughly corrupt in this world, but a parent giving their child some money they've worked for and paid income tax on is not one.

  2. Anonymous
    April 22, 2016 at 9:13 pm

    " It makes you wonder who is being protected and why. "
    Mayhap their bosses and colleagues?

    "what do they mean by “ethical reasons”?"
    It is not ethical to snitch on your mates. (Tongue firmly planted in cheek)

    "The “US Papers” Perhaps?"
    It would be interesting to find out which of our honorable representatives are hiding filthy lucre, where and how much. Slick Willy and Hillary were/are crying poverty since leaving the White House.

    • Mark O'Neill
      April 24, 2016 at 10:43 am

      I have to take issue with part of your comment. First of all, if the bosses and colleagues are in on it, then they don't deserve to be protected. And with the exception of maybe the janitor, I find it difficult to believe that anybody was in the dark. People talk, whispers around the water cooler and so forth. Everybody in that company knew. You can bet the bank on it. And if they knew and did nothing, they deserve no special consideration now.

      Second, I don't think the whistleblower should be lectured on him/her being unethical because they snitched on their colleagues. What the colleagues were doing could hardly be construed as ethical either!!!

      It amuses me that the Clintons are pleading poverty. They make millions from book deals, lectures, and God knows what else. They have had the money to bribe all the superdelegates in the Democratic Primary, so they must not be so hard off.

      • Anonymous
        April 24, 2016 at 12:59 pm

        "I find it difficult to believe that anybody was in the dark"
        The Panama Papers are proof that legions of people and many governments were in the dark.

        That's the problem with print. It is hard to express emotion. I was sarcastic about snitching being unethical. But the question still remains WHY exactly is the ICIJ withholding some documents? The cynics would say that they are protecting their own arses.

  3. TaxPayer
    April 22, 2016 at 5:55 pm

    Add Spain's industry minister to the list, who resigned just a few days ago:

    This all Panama Papers is a blessing, can't wait for more to come… It clearly shows how deeply rotten the entire financial system is. People with money will always want more, no matter how much they own, it seems that their greed has no limits.

    And no, I don't think it will ever happen to me, cause I doubt I'll have the money or the resources necessary to create fake companies abroad just to cheat on my government and fellow taxpayers.