Data breaches – updates from the Panama Papers

A recent LA event looked at the pros and cons of leaks from a communications perspective

It is unlikely that any of us will be forced to handle something of the magnitude of the Panama Papers: 11.5m items, 5m emails, 3m databases, 2m PDFs, 1m images – essentially the entire output generated by a law firm over a near 40-year period. Nonetheless, handling issues related to data breaches has clearly become an evergreen challenge for any communicator.

Alex Winter, the actor, film director and screenwriter behind The Panama Papers documentary was a keynote speaker at an e-discovery conference, hosted by Nuix last week in California. His conversation with Stephen Stewart, Chief Technology Officer at Nuix, was fascinating: it focused on future trends in privacy in general and the positive and negative impacts of data breaches on society.

Some highlights from the conversation:

Governments, business and wider society need data breaches to take place to address underlying gaps in the regulatory landscape. The point was made that there is no way for contract or copyright law to keep up with the shifts in data that are taking place in different markets. Communicators could do worse than remind themselves of the essence of the law surrounding data in their focus areas.

Breaches bring issues to life and force stakeholders to make incremental progress in addressing it. Data breaches are leading to more collaboration between journalists, lawyers and law enforcement officers. This is a good thing.

Breaches which release information in a way which does no physical harm to any individual – what Winter characterized as white hacks – are positive. Whereas breaches which do lead to the harm of an individual – labelled black hacks – are clearly damaging. This is going to be particularly interesting to communicators who are focusing on winning in the court of public opinion and staff canteens. Are the lines so clear cut in those settings?

Journalism in general and investigative reporters are clearly at the bleeding edge of this and are facing the highest risks. Winter claims there are 800 less journalists operating today than there were when the Panama Papers came out. It would have been good to know where this data point comes from. His argument was that some have been driven out by state-controlled media shutting down; some have been driven out by a wish to move onto other things; and in a few, tragic cases, some have been killed.

Both Stewart and Winter made numerous references to the role played by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in coordinating the exposure of the largest data leak in history. Quality journalism is experiencing a renaissance driven by ultra-niche providers and the giants – such as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal – blending their newsroom capabilities with data expertise and the wider web.

The key takeaway from someone who is focused on the communications perspective – be bolder in accessing the expertise of the lawyers, law enforcers and experts in this field. Build those bridges now to improve the quality of prospective collaboration.

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