Future Tense

The Panama Papers Are 2.6 Terabytes of Leaked Data. How Big Is That Really?

How big is big?

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On Sunday, a coalition of journalists began releasing news stories about offshore banking based on a 2.6-terabyte trove of leaked files provided to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung by an anonymous source. The data comes from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and provides a window into the financials of powerful people like politicians, criminals, and celebrities.

Süddeutsche Zeitung and other organizations working on the Panama Papers began the project about a year ago, and the scale is definitely significant. The 2.6 terabytes SZ received in total from its source encompasses about 11.5 million documents. The Guardian, which is part of the coalition, wrote that “the leak is one of the biggest ever.”  


The Panama Papers leak is certainly large compared with WikiLeaks’ troves, which contained hundreds of thousands of documents, or even the Edward Snowden trove. Snowden is now thought to have stolen about 1.5 million documents but may have only shared 200,000 with journalists. (The total size of the Snowden trove is unclear, but it may be 60 gigabytes.) The sense of scale for whistleblowing and transparency leaks is clearly evolving. In 2010, when WikiLeaks released an encrypted 1.4-gigabyte “insurance” folder, MIT Tech Review called it ”really big.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung’s introduction to the Panama Papers.

Süddeutsche Zeitung


You can think of the 2.6 terabytes of the Panama Papers as equivalent to about 200 high-definition 1080p movie files. Your computer may have a one or two terabyte hard drive, or you may have bought a terabyte external hard drive because your computer stores just 250-500 gigabytes of data.

A 2- to 3-terabyte scale is relatively small, though, compared to some malicious data breaches. For example, one National Security Agency document leaked by Snowden indicates that, in 2007, Chinese hackers stole 50 terabytes of classified data from the U.S. military, including blueprints for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In the Sony hack, the “Guardians of Peace” North Korean hacking group released 200 gigabytes of data and claimed to have stolen a total of 100 terabytes.

The question now will be how much content is in the 2.6 terabytes of the Panama Papers. Though much smaller in terms of sheer data size, the Snowden leak has continued to generate news stories and revelations three years after its original release. But regardless of longevity, Süddeutsche Zeitung’s trove is a clear reminder that the scale of data leaks is increasing across the board.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Panama Papers.