After spending nearly a week in Ecuador to learn more about the case against Swedish open source software developer Ola Bini, who was arrested here in April, EFF has found a clear consensus among the experts: the political consequences of his arrest appear to be outweighing any actual evidence the police have against him. The details of who stood to benefit from Bini’s prosecution varied depending on who we spoke with, but overall we have been deeply disturbed by how intertwined the investigation is to the political effects of its outcome. Ola Bini’s innocence or guilt is a fact that should be determined only be a fair trial that follows due process; it should in no way be impacted by potential political ramifications.
EFF Press Conference on Ola Bini Case, August 2nd
Since EFF was founded in 1990, we have frequently stepped in to defend security researchers from misunderstandings made by law enforcement, and raised awareness when technologists in the United States have been incarcerated. And last year, we launched a new Coders’ Rights in Latin America project, which seeks to connect the work of security research with the fundamental rights of its practitioners. While security researchers play a vital role in fixing flaws in the software and hardware that everyone uses, their actions and behaviors are often misunderstood. For example, as part of their work, they may discover and inform a company of a dangerous software flaw—a civic duty that could be confused with as a hacking attack.
When we first began analyzing Ola Bini’s case, we thought this was what had happened. The so-called “evidence” presented after his arrest—which included USB sticks, security keys, books on programming—suggested this might be the case. Of course, owning such things is not a crime, but together, they can seem suspicious to an authority who isn’t in the know.
But, as the case progressed, questions arose that we could not answer from California, which is why we traveled to Ecuador to better understand what was happening. This week, three members of our team met directly with those involved and others familiar with the Ecuadorian criminal justice system, to get a clearer sense of what’s happened in the case.
Ola Bini is known globally as a computer security expert; he is someone who builds secure tools and contributes to free software projects. Ola’s team at ThoughtWorks contributed to Certbot, the EFF-managed tool that has provided strong encryption for millions of websites around the world, and most recently, Ola co-founded a non-profit organization devoted to creating user-friendly security tools.
What Ola is not known for, however, is conducting the kind of security research that could be mistaken for an “assault on the integrity of computer systems,” the crime for which he is being investigated. Furthermore, the lack of details about this alleged hacking attack is a point of confusion for EFF. If someone breaks into a house, and authorities arrest a suspect, the prosecution should at the very least be able to tell you which house was broken into. The same principle should apply in the digital world.
Ola Bini has been facing prosecution now for nearly four months, and we still haven’t been told what systems he is supposed to have broken into, or any other details of his alleged criminal behavior.
After being in Quito for a week and speaking to journalists, politicians, lawyers, academics, and Ola and his defense team—and extending invitations to Interior Minister María Paula Romo and Diana Salazar Mendez to meet with us—we believe we have a better picture of what is happening. In brief, based on the interviews that we have conducted this week, our conclusion is that Bini’s prosecution is a political case, not a criminal one.
Bini’s lawyers told us that they have counted 65 violations of due process so far during the trial, and the Habeas Corpus decision confirmed the weakness of the initial detention. Journalists have told us that no one is able to provide them with concrete descriptions of what he has done. And we know that while Ola Bini’s behavior and contacts in the security world may look strange to authorities, his computer security expertise is not a crime.
We urge political actors of all sides to step away from this case, and to allow justice to be done. If they refuse, they risk damaging the reputation of Ecuador’s judicial system abroad, and violating the international human rights standards as defined within the Inter-American system for the protection of human rights.