Panama Papers and the end of the Age of Secrets: A tribute to John Doe

It came in, unconvincingly, as a breaking news ticker on my phone. Little did I know then, that my finger tap in response to that ticker blurb would open up a flood of information about the largest information-secrets leak in the history of humankind. Listening in, as the dull April day trudged on, I heard voices across the internet, from lands near and afar, unified in expressing their outrage, anger, bitterness even, at the uncovered audacity and the disrobed blatant abuse of power, position, money, political machinery, of naked deceit, betrayal and subterfuge – over the four and a half recent decades. That it was an unsightly sight, would be a gross understatement. From ‘John Doe’ to ‘Panama’ to ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’ to ‘Mossack Fonseca’ and the ‘ICIJ’, the obscure and the unfamiliar became part of the lexicon of outrage.

An unmasking of any kind is an act of provocation, and it would do us good to always examine the intentions governing that action. With a threat to his life, the whistle-blower and anonymous data source ‘John Doe’ apparently did not want anything other than complete anonymity for the data that he provided, steered with an intention of uncovering criminal activity. A perfect profile for the textbook righteous whistle-blower. For now, we can only go by what the ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’ newspaper tells us about the source, and rightfully, nothing else is known yet about the mysterious ‘John Doe.’ A well-guarded secret, if you will. But secrets have an unusual propensity to seek out the much despised spot-light, with the march of time; enough to make a documentary on, a ‘Citizen J’ possibly, someday.

If there was an information-secrets equivalent of a thermonuclear weapon detonation, Panama Papers was it, and the responses of the ones who ‘did not have a fig leaf’ on them were slow to come, and pitiably, unforgivably predictable. I would attribute that partially to shock, the dawning that ‘the untouchables’ were no more so, leaning in to the subsequent whole-hearted embracement of denial. From throwing in lawsuits, to feigning innocence, to arguing for ‘all clean, and above the board’, to ‘invasion of privacy’, to ‘I have nothing to do with that!,’ it was like watching a rerun of a rerun, something that one has been a reluctant spectator to for a splendid period of human time. But this time, it was different, distinctly different, for heads of states, known criminals, celebrities, politicians, known fraudsters, captains of industry, stars, drug smugglers, government officials, professional athletes, arms dealers, lawyers, business heads, ‘the well-educated, genteel, and sophisticated’ from all over the planet were unified by their vulgar display of unabashed greed, by their flippant hypocrisy, by their lack of common courtesy and respect for the laws governing their respective nation states, and by their unified betrayal of the citizenry.

The voices of outrage that I mention at the outset, I realized over the day, were more voices of anguish, dwelling in sad, even shocked lament – a shake of the head and the utterance of “You too….?”. Known drug dealers and criminals ‘rubbing shoulders’ with and having next to nothing to differentiate with your childhood idol has to be a brutal rude awakening, for anyone. The anguish also emanated from the realization that the structures and the foundations of the world as we know it, that the path to progress and individual success as defined by the (now) usual suspects of the ‘rich and famous’, was not really fueled by the fairy tales of hard-work, honesty and service that we have all been fed with, but rather by harbouring deceitful secrets, defined by a singular lack of conscience. This is the day that one is deeply saddened when the child tells the parent “I want to be rich and famous.” This is the day that the institutions of our times – banks, legal firms, management companies reveal themselves for what they are – at the service of only those harbouring deceitful secrets.

The Anthropocene, the epoch of man, I propose, also houses the Age of Secrets of man, and man the builder of tools and user of technologies, has always invented newer ways of inscribing, encrypting, storing and retrieving data. Each of us, we have something that we want to keep away from prying eyes and minds. Each of us, we want to lock something away from public glare and inspection, and ironically we have built for ourselves systems of information storage and retrieval that can be vulnerable or rendered vulnerable to breaches. I believe we have done that for a reason – we do not truly want a lock that can never ever be opened. We are all fallible, no one is an exception, and privacy debates and conjectures about the perceived harm of data breaches have been ongoing. Crime and criminal activity however requires intervention to prevent fairly universally agreed on unlawful wrong-doings. An impregnable safe in the hands of a criminal is not desirable, one would argue, and however much in the shadows one may think one is operating in, criminal activities, like secrets, have a way of seeking out that spot-light, in time. The Panama Papers point to the ever-growing and undeniable power of one – that one individual who ends up seeing and knowing what he/she was not meant to see and know. The test of character and fortitude is in the response of that individual to that knowledge – for one can choose to blackmail in return for wealth and favours, or one can remain invisible, reach out to ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’ and radically change the world.

PANAMA PAPERS / Los Papeles de Panamá - the largest data leak journalists have ever worked with


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