Today, EFF sent a letter to Ecuador’s Human Rights Secretariat about the troubling, slow-motion case against the Swedish computer security expert Ola Bini since his arrest in April 2019, following Julian Assange’s ejection from Ecuador’s London Embassy. Ola Bini faced 70 days of imprisonment until a Habeas Corpus decision considered his detention illegal. He was released from jail, but the investigation continued, seeking evidence to back the alleged accusations against the security expert.
The circumstances around Ola Bini’s detention, which was fraught with due process violations described by his defense, sparked international attention and indicated the growing seriousness of security experts’ harassment in Latin America. The criminal prosecution has dragging out for two years since Bini’s release. And as a suspect under trial, Ola Bini continues to be deprived of the full enjoyment of his rights. During 2020, pre-trial hearings set for examining Bini’s case were suspended and rescheduled at least five times. The Office of the IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression expressed concern with this delay in its 2020’s annual report.
Last suspended in December, the pre-trial hearing is set to continue this Tuesday (6/29). Ecuador’s new President, Guillermo Lasso, recently appointed a new head for the country’s Human Rights Secretariat, Ms. Bernarda Ordoñez Moscoso. We hope Ms. Ordoñez can play a relevant role by bridging the protection of security experts to the Secretariat’s mission of upholding human rights.
EFF’s letter calls upon Ecuadors’ Human Rights Secretariat to give special attention to Ola Bini’s upcoming hearing and prosecution. As we’ve stressed in our letter,
Mr. Bini’s case has profound implications for, and sits at the center of, the application of human rights and due process, a landmark case in the context of arbitrarily applying overbroad criminal laws to security experts. Mr. Bini’s case represents a unique opportunity for the Human Rights Secretariat Cabinet to consider and guard the rights of security experts in the digital age. Security experts protect the computers upon which we all depend and protect the people who have integrated electronic devices into their daily lives, such as human rights defenders, journalists, activists, dissidents, among many others. To conduct security research, we need to protect the security experts, and ensure they have the tools to do their work.
Ola Bini’s arrest happened shortly after Ecuador’s Interior Minister at the time, María Paula Romo, held a press conference to claim that a group of Russians and Wikileaks-connected hackers were in the country, planning a cyber-attack in retaliation for the government’s eviction of Julian Assange from Ecuador’s London Embassy. However, no evidence to back those claims was provided by Romo.
EFF has been tracking the detention, investigation, and prosecution of Ola Bini since its early days in 2019. We conducted an on-site visit to the country’s capital, Quito, in late July that year, and underscored the harmful impact that possible political consequences of the case were having on the security expert’s chances of receiving a fair trial. Later on, a so-called piece of evidence was leaked to the press and taken to court: a photo of a screenshot, taken by Bini himself and sent to a colleague, showing the telnet login screen of a router.
As we’ve explained, the image is consistent with someone who connects to an open telnet service, receives a warning not to log on without authorization, and does not proceed—respecting the warning. As for the portion of Bini’s message exchange with a colleague, leaked with the photo, it shows their concern with the router being insecurely open to telnet access on the wider Internet, with no firewall.
More recently, in April 2021, Ola Bini’s Habeas Data recourse, filed in October 2020 against the National Police, the Ministry of Government, and the Strategic Intelligence Center (CIES), was partially granted by the Judge. According to Bini’s defense, he had been facing continuous monitoring by members of the National Police and unidentified persons. The decision requested CIES to provide information related to whether the agency has conducted surveillance activities against the security expert. The ruling concluded that CIES unduly denied such information to Ola Bini, failing to offer a timely response to his previous information request.
EFF has a longstanding history of countering the unfair criminal persecution of security experts, who have unfortunately been the subject of the same types of harassment as those they work to protect, such as human rights defenders and activists. The flimsy allegations against Ola Bini, the series of irregularities and human rights violations in his case, as well as its international resonance, situate it squarely among other cases we have seen of politicized and misguided allegations against technologists and security researchers.
We hope Ecuador’s Human Rights Secretariat also carefully examines the details surrounding Ola Bini’s prosecution, and follows its developments so that the security expert can receive a fair trial. We respectfully urge that body to assess and address the complaints of injustice, which it is uniquely and well-positioned to do.
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Author: Veridiana Alimonti