‘Panama Papers’ researchers nailed secure communication

Attention, Donald Trump: Sometimes journalists get it right. That’s the conclusion of security researchers who found a big success in an unlikely place: the “Panama Papers.”

The Panama Papers project, you’ll recall, was a year-long collaboration between journalists around the globe to analyze and report on a leaked cache of papers from a Panamanian law firm that detailed offshore funds held by various high-profile individuals. The reporting went on in secret and when released, caught the world off guard. That secrecy, it turns out, owed a lot to the simplicity of security measures that organizers used, increasingly the likelihood that participating reporters would use it.

Said the University of Washington’s Franzi Roesner: “Success stories in computer security are rare. But we discovered that the journalists involved in the Panama Papers project seem to have achieved their security goals.” By making the tools easy to use, the collaborative investigative effort among a large, diverse group of globally distributed journalists was able to keep their communication private.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation exposed offshore companies linked to 140-plus politicians in more than 50 countries — including 14 current or former heads of state. As described by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, it revealed hidden funds linked to  big banks, corporate bribery scandals, drug lords, the Syrian civil war, and insiders around Russian President Vladimir Putin that trafficked as much as $2 billion around the world.

Said said Susan McGregor, at Columbia University Journalism School: “We found that the tools developed for the project were highly useful and usable, which motivated journalists to use the secure communication platforms provided by the ICIJ.” McGregor delivered the group’s paper, “When the Weakest Link is Strong: Secure Collaboration in the Case of the Panama Papers” at the USENIX security conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Echoed Kelly Caine at Clemson University: “This project is an example of the power of multi-disciplinary research…. We couldn’t have made these important discoveries without the expertise of everyone on the team.”

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