Data Leaks and Data Ethics: The Panama Papers

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When is it ethically OK to leak data?

Julien Assange’s WikiLeaks began a trend of mass-leaking documents via the internet that provide evidence of dodgy international goings-on. Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden followed suit. And now we have the ‘Panama Papers’.

If you are unsure of what has been happening, the BBC offer a fairly quick overview here.

With this most recent leak taking the world by storm, I wondered, when can you justify a breach of data confidentiality?

Working with the data from any industry in the UK has to be covered by The Data Protection Act (1998) with similar laws governing most developed nations, meaning that any data held by a company or third party affiliates, must remain confidential unless given explicit consent to release – or you are being investigated for various criminal offenses. There is a reason for reading the Terms & Conditions of any contract, as this is where some companies hide the fact that they will sell your information (only non-sensitive such as email or address) to marketing companies; The Data Protection Act only covers your sensitive information.

It has been claimed that what Mossack Fonseca where doing in Panama was legal, but even if this is the case, why did those involved want to keep their dealings secret? The answer is simple. They were minimising their tax payments, as many individuals and international corporations do. This is hardly undocumented. Google recently came to an agreement with the British Parliament to pay some of the tax it had minimised for years. Tax havens exist all over the world, such as Ireland, where Apple operates from in the EU, and the Cayman Islands where ‘residents’ remain untaxed, and mean that governments miss out on billions of much-needed tax dollars to fund public services the world over.

The difference this time is that those named in the documents are individuals associated with the corporations, not the corporate bodies they invest in – though these were also named. Is this bordering on a leak of sensitive information? Well, no. At least, not for those named in this particular leak. Names like Ian Cameron (David Cameron’s father), Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson (Prime Minister of Iceland), Salman (King of Saudi Arabia), and Mark Thatcher (son of Maggie Thatcher) were available to the media long before the leak, but what was not known was their connection to the businesses utilising tax havens. This is what has changed, and it is causing outrage from the working and middle classes. When your Head of State has links to tax dodging, why would you continue to have faith in their ability to run your country fairly? When these investments are linked to the increase of house prices in the city in which you work, why shouldn’t you be angry.

But has there been outrage from those to whom data ethics are of utmost importance? This is a moral grey area, and one where I hope to contribute to the worldwide discussion.

Moral philosophy

Positive reasons for the leak:

  • Those who have minimised their taxation through offshore accounting have been forced to justify their financial movements.
  • Journalism has claimed that the leak is in the ‘public interest’, pertaining to the alleged loss of public funding through offshore tax havens minimising the cash flow out of corporate hands and into national ones.
  • With multiple reports over the last decade referring to increasingly excessive wage gaps, those not in the ‘1%’ of the world’s richest deserve to know ‘who’ and ‘how’. The ‘who’ now clearly not just including the ‘1%’, but also some of the upper middle classes, and the ‘how’ being through offshore accounts – known about for a long time, but without the evidence to back it up.
  • Whether you are a potential client of a legal firm like Mossack Fonseca, or a government body tied up in international terror prevention, this leak has provided some astonishing facts about past and present beneficiaries of the Panama-based company’s expertise. Will Fitzgibbon and Martha M. Hamilton of The Irish Times focused an article on some such clients; known financiers of terrorism and international black market arms dealers. Everyone has a right to know that trusted companies are, or are not, facilitating violent, illegal, or otherwise unsavoury operations.

Negative reasons for the leak:

  • Could this new information put individuals at risk, rather than companies? If so, was it ethically the right thing to do when there is a possibility of violence against the named parties?
  • If the loopholes exist, and the dealings are legal, who are we to publicly shame those who have taken advantage of them. Public shaming is not a substitute for good laws that prevent unethical behaviour, no matter how difficult it can be to implement such laws.

Data ethics

Positive reasons for the leak:

  • The conversation about what information should be freely available is in full flow. As noted here by Bustle, the U.S. Treasury will be requiring banks to seek the identities of shell corporations’ owners and affiliates.
  • As taxation across the world relies heavily on financial data of each country’s inhabitants, the fact that many investments in the shell companies were withheld from governments (as with Gunnlaugsson) means that some nations had incomplete data sets to work with when calculating tax revenues.
  • More importantly, in countries where politicians are required to provide financial information in order to prove that they have no outside influencers, and therefore be unrestricted by personal interest whilst in office, some have lied. The public have been voting on an incomplete set of information.

Negative reasons for the leak:

  • The calls for digital privacy have been increasing considerably for the last few years as general privacy is considered a human right, but even though this story comes under ‘public interest’, Privacy laws should have kept the information out of the public sphere.
  • If Mossack Fonseca’s claims that the whistle-blower was indeed a hacker, and not an insider, then data security becomes an issue; one that should be putting fear into the hearts of any corporation or individual with whom Mossack Fonseca had business with, or use the same computer systems as the beleaguered legal firm. Whoever had been providing their data security had not done a good enough job of keeping up-to-date with security protocol, as extensively covered here by James Temperton and Matt Burgess at Wired.

The list of issues from an individual level right through to industry level will continue to grow as more information is leaked. Some will claim that this data leak has been a significant step forward in the fight for financial equality while others will claim this is a step back in the fight for privacy. Whatever your stance, we can all agree that the world has started changing just a little bit quicker: whether it’s the intensity of China’s anti-corruption policies to the ousting of Iceland’s Prime Minister, Putin’s increased fear that the whole world is against Russia to the U.S Treasury’s call for greater transparency in banking.

I’m all for change, as long as the positives for worldwide financial and social equality outweigh the negatives.

If you had been in Süddeutsche Zeitung’s position, what would you have done with this information?

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