Networking in Panama

A series of documents known as the Panama Papers is currently shedding light on a network that you may not want to be a part of. Hundreds of rich, powerful people from every corner of the globe are coming under scrutiny for using offshore bank accounts and shell companies. These are often considered methods of tax evasion in practice, even though such institutions are not strictly illegal. Most who have been incriminated by the Papers have denied any illegal activity and/or dismissed the attack as subversive and ill-informed, such as Vladimir Putin and associates and other international government figures. However, not all have dismissed the allegations so readily — the Prime Minister of Iceland, Sigmunder David Gunnlaugsson, stepped down after being implicated in the scandal — and governments are swearing further investigation.

There are several interesting ways in which the concepts of networks and data are playing a role in the scandal. The Panama Papers is the popular term that has emerged for a collection of around 11.5 million documents sent to a German newspaper from an anonymous source, about 2.6 terabytes of data. From this data, a rudimentary affiliation network was constructed: hundreds of individuals were linked to thousands of companies and accounts via a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, which could be viewed as a pivotal, cut vertex.

There are further ways to model and analyze this situation in the language of networks, perhaps most interesting among them the “network” of the super-rich and super-powerful. While in actuality there may be no such network at all, looking in from the outside, as most of us do, seems to create one. The shroud of mystery and intrigue surrounding people with otherworldly wealth generates a narrative of behind-the-back dealings and an us-versus-them dynamic, in which “they” all cooperate to increase their stranglehold on the world’s power while the rest of us try to cope with everyday life. Data leaks such as the Panama Papers corroborate this narrative, no matter how ultimately baseless it is.

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