EFF has been tracking the arrest, detention, and subsequent investigation of Ola Bini since its beginnings over 18 months ago. Bini, a Swedish-born open-source developer, was arrested in Ecuador’s Quito Airport in a flurry of media attention in April 2019. He was held without trial for ten weeks while prosecutors seized and pored over his technology, his business, and his private communications, looking for evidence attaching him to an alleged conspiracy to destabilize the Ecuadorean government.
Now, after months of delay, an Ecuadorean pre-trial judge has failed to dismiss the case – despite Bini’s defense documenting over hundred procedural and civil liberty violations made in the course of the investigation. EFF was one of the many human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, who were refused permission by the judge to act as observers at Wednesday’s hearing.
Bini, a Swedish-born open-source developer, was seized by police at Quito Airport shortly after Ecuador’s Interior Minister, Maria Paula Romo, held a press conference warning the country of an imminent cyber-attack. Romo spoke hours after the government had ejected Julian Assange from Ecuador’s London Embassy, and claimed that a group of Russians and Wikileaks-connected hackers were in the country, planning an attack in retaliation for the eviction. No further details of this sabotage plot were ever revealed, nor has it been explained how the Minister knew of the gangs’ plans in advance. Instead, only Bini was detained, imprisoned, and held in detention for 71 days without charge until a provincial court, facing a habeas corpus order, declared his imprisonment unlawful and released him to his friends and family. (Romo was dismissed as minister last month for ordering the use of tear gas against anti-government protestors.)
EFF visited Ecuador to investigate complaints of injustice in the case in August 2019. We concluded that the Bini affair had the sadly familiar hallmark of a politicized “hacker panic” where media depictions of hacking super-criminals and overbroad cyber-crime laws together encourage unjust prosecutions when the political and social atmosphere demands it. (EFF’s founding in 1990 was in part due to a notorious, and similar, case pursued in the United States by the Secret Service, documented in Bruce Sterling’s Hacker Crackdown.)
While the Ecuadorian government continues to portray him to journalists as a Wikileaks-employed malicious cybercriminal, his reputation outside the prosecution is very different. An advocate for a secure and open Internet and computer language expert, Bini is primarily known for his non-profit work on the secure communication protocol, OTP, and contributions to the Java implementation of the Ruby programming language. He has also contributed to EFF’s Certbot project, which provides easy-to-use security for millions of websites. He moved to Ecuador during his employment at the global consultancy ThoughtWorks, which has an office in the country’s capital.
After several months of poring over his devices, prosecutors have been able to provide only one piece of supposedly incriminating data: a copy of a screenshot, taken by Bini himself and sent to a colleague, that shows the telnet login screen of a router. From the context, it’s clear that Bini was expressing surprise that the telco router was not firewalled, and was seeking to draw attention to this potential security issue. Bini did not go further than the login prompt in his investigation of the open machine.
Defense and prosecution will now make arguments on the admissibility of this and other non-technical evidence, and the judge will determine if and when Bini’s case will progress to a full trial in the New Year.
We, once again, urge Ecuador’s judiciary to impartially consider the shaky grounds for this case, and divorce their deliberations from the politicized framing that has surrounded this prosecution from the start.