Privacy, Transparency & Technology: Why the Panama Papers Matter

Right now as you’re reading this, thousands of very powerful people are having a really bad week. For some, the Panama Papers story is simply of confirmation something we already knew - the ultra-rich use their wealth to maintain a stranglehold on power while simultaneously hiding from the taxman. It’s yet more evidence that the global elite don't follow the same rules as the rest of us. As Nicholas Shaxson sums it up: “You take your money elsewhere, to another country, in order to escape the rules and laws of the society in which you operate.” The game appears to be permanently rigged.

But for us, as technology enthusiasts, this is a different kind of story. Rather than being more bad news about corrupt politicians, dodgy businessmen and rampant global inequality, we think it’s a good news story about how technology is making the elite more accountable. Rich, bad people have been squirreling away their money to avoid paying their fair share for a long time. The only difference is that now, thanks to high speed internet, cloud-based data storage, improved encryption technologies and digital collaboration tools we can prove it. 

Hundreds of respected international journalists chipped away at this story in secret for a year. The work of editing and mining the documents has been a triumph of digital technology, often by small and uncelebrated actors. Jim Gutenberg, from the New York Times calls it "the next step in the tentative merger between the Fourth Estate, with its relatively restrained conventional journalists, and the Fifth Estate, with the push-the-limits ethos of its blogger, hacker and journo-activist cohort." And the beauty of this new, networked, data-driven model of journalism is that there’s little any government can do to stop it. 

The digital revolution, and the collaborative technologies it makes possible, are shining a light into shadowy corners that have remained hidden for decades. Freedom of information and the ease with which whistleblowers can shift material into the public domain have dramatically tilted the balance in the battle between secrecy and disclosure. The war is an asymmetrical one. Wrongdoing can now be exposed by a single person, with a single leak. This is the upside of the privacy debate we’re seeing everywhere around us. And each time we get one of these scandals, a Snowden, or Luxembourg or Panama, it moves the needle on the acceptability dial.

We may not feel like it but the ability of the elite to get away with skullduggery is shrinking. Technology gives us the ability to hold our leaders to account in a way that was previously unimaginable. Our political representatives are going to have start publishing their tax returns. Governments are going to have a harder time claiming there’s not enough money for healthcare, or renewable energy investments, or basic income schemes. The next time you see a Panama Papers story, instead of shaking your head and muttering darkly about how awful it all is, how about a change in attitude? Celebrate the fact that we're living in an era of unprecedented transparency. Enjoy watching as a small group of entitled people squirm as the spotlight of accountability stabs into places they never expected to see it. And celebrate the achievements of journalists from around the world who've worked so hard to bring us the news the powerful would prefer you not to hear.