What happens when the largest data leak in human history implicates not just wealthy industrialists, but foreign heads of state, their families and ministers, and an array of powerful elites? It looks like we’ll soon find out.
A few days ago, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and Süddeutsche Zeitung released a groundbreaking story months in the making. Over 2.6 terabytes of data held by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca was leaked by an anonymous individual. Some 11.5 million documents showcasing the international financial activities of politicians, billionaires, and the world’s elite were available for public viewing. The fallout is currently hitting countries from China to the U.K., from Iceland to the former Soviet Republics of central Asia. And although no Americans have yet been verifiably implicated, we’ve been told to expect that list of names sometime soon.
Mossack Fonseca’s response to the ICIJ’s story goes into more detail regarding contentions that some of the individuals and parties cited “are not and have never been clients” of the firm. No doubt the firm is in the midst of a major public relations nightmare. A great deal of information still needs to be verified, but one thing is certain: this is a story that is only likely to gain steam in the midst of this presidential election season.
But there’s good reason to refrain from speculating wildly as to the ramifications of this news. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s assess some issues currently not making the major headlines on ICIJ’s website and elsewhere.
To begin, while much is still uncertain in these early stages, it is highly unlikely that every individual and entity cited in the release is actually guilty of wrongdoing. However, that’s largely tangential to a larger issue that has gone unaddressed in this leak.
Thus far I’ve seen articles both condemning the leak and celebrating it, all largely focused on the broader issue of the moral arguments for and against tax havens. And certainly there are reasonable arguments to be made both for and against tax havens. But what about the issue of privacy?
The Snowden leaks were similarly condemned and celebrated. But that debate was cast as one of individual privacy versus government surveillance, the timeless battle of power asymmetries between the state and its citizens. And while many privacy advocates were and remain clearly aligned in the pro-Snowden camp, this data leak brings to light far more difficult questions with which we must wrestle.
Does the right to privacy—in particular, financial privacy—not apply equally to the rich and powerful? Put aside for a moment discussions of those powerful elites who may have acquired their fortunes by plundering the citizens placed under their charge. Disregard the cronyist ministers who carried out the will of their patrons. Forget about the corporations surreptitiously engaged in the morally ambiguous—and reprehensible—business of providing arms, munitions, and resources to countries engaged in genocide and repression. What about all the wealthy individuals in these leaks (and there are likely many of them) whose only (supposed) infraction was employing legal mechanisms for avoiding onerous taxation of their wealth? Are they not entitled to the same degree of privacy as the rest of us? Have their interests, their right to privacy, not been grossly violated with this leak?
Alternatively, as Larry Downes noted in a Cato paper:
The desire for privacy is often a desire to protect ourselves from the negative consequences of our own behavior. In that sense, privacy isn’t a human right—it’s a limit on the rights of those who have to deal with us. Privacy comes at a price. The more of it we have, the more risk to which we expose everyone else.
He might be right. Then again, maybe he’s not. I don’t have a good answer to the questions I’ve posed here, but then again, I don’t think anyone else really does either at this point. For the time being, we’d all to well do exhibit a healthy dose of intellectual humility, recognizing that there is certainly evidence of bad actors engaged in nefarious activities here, but plenty of law-abiding, privacy-conscious individuals as well. We’ve opened a Pandora’s Box of Panamanian pandemonium—if we can’t put it back in that box, here’s hoping we can at least adjust to the consequences.