A Grim Year for Imprisoned Technologists: 2017 In Review
The world is taking an increasingly dim view of the misuses of technology and those who made their names (and fortunes) from them. In 2017, Silicon Valley companies were caught up in a ongoing trainwreck of scandals: biased algorithms, propaganda botnets, and extremist online organizing have dominated the media's headlines.
But in less-reported-on corners of the world, concerns about technology are being warped to hurt innocent coders, writers and human rights defenders. Since its founding, EFF has highlighted and defended cases of injustice and fearmongering perpetrated against innocent technologists. We advocate for unjustly imprisoned technologists and bloggers with our Offline project. In 2017, we continue to see fear being whipped up against those who oppose oppression with modern tools—as well as those who have done nothing more than teach and share technology so that we can all use and understand it better.
Take Dmitry Bogatov, software developer and math lecturer at Moscow's Finance and Law University. Bogatov ran a volunteer Tor relay, allowing people around the world to protect their identities as they used the Internet. It was one part of his numerous acts of high-tech public service, which include co-maintaining Xmonad and other Haskell software for the Debian project.
For his generosity, Bogatov has now spent over a hundred days in pretrial detention, wrongfully accused of posting extremist materials that were allegedly sent via through Tor server. Law enforcement officials around the world understand that data that appears to originate from a particular Tor machine is, in fact, traffic from its anonymised users. But that didn't stop Bogatov's prosecutors in Russia from accusing him of sending the data himself, under a pseudonym, to foment riots—and added new charges of "inciting terrorism" when a judge suggested the earlier charge was too weak to hold Bogatov in pre-trial detention.
Dmitry is still being denied his freedom, accused of a crime he clearly did not commit. The same is true for Emirati telecommunications engineer, Ahmed Mansoor, of the United Arab Emirates. Mansoor has been a tireless voice for victims of human rights abuses in the United Arab Emirates. In 2011, amidst the Arab uprisings, he was one of five Emirati citizens to be sentenced to prison for his social media postings. That case provoked international condemnation, and the group was soon pardoned. Mansoor was subsequently targeted with sophisticated government spyware on his iPhone; he recognised and passed on the malware link to experts, which led to the discovery of three previously unknown vulnerabilities in Apple's iOS.
In April, Mansoor was seized by the UAE authorities again. On the day of his arrest, the UAE’s official news agency saying that he had been arrested on the orders of the Public Prosecution for Cybercrimes and accused of using social media to promote sectarianism and hate, among other charges. Mansoor’s family did not hear from him for two weeks, and he has been denied access to a lawyer.
Just a year ago, Apple was able to roll out a security fix to their users because of Mansoor's swift, transparent, and selfless actions. Millions of people are safer because of Ahmed's actions, even as his family fears for his own physical and mental safety.
Mansoor's detention is new, but others continue to be jailed for their use of technology, year after year. Alaa abd el-Fattah ran Linux installfests across the Middle-East and was a key online voice in the Egyptian uprising. Since then he has been jailed, in turn, by the democratically elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, and then when Morsi was overthrown in a coup, by incoming President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. Alaa's appeal against a five year prison sentence for protesting—widely seen as a means to silence him on social media—was refused in November of this year. Amnesty and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have both condemned Alaa's continuing imprisonment.
Another long-term case is that of Saeed Malekpour, who has been in jail in Iran since 2008. Malekpour returned from Canada to visit his sick Iranian father in October of that year, at a time when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was starting to target technologists and Internet experts. As an open source coder, Malekpour had written a free front-end image management utility for websites. The Guard found this software on a Farsi pornography site, and used it to as a pretext to seize Malekpour from the streets of Tehran, charge him with running the web site, and sentencing him to death.
Malekpour's death sentence has been anulled twice following international pressure, but a change of government in his home country of Canada risked reducing the level of support for Malekpour. A campaign to encourage the new Trudeau administration to continue to advocate for Malekpour, even as Canada seeks to normalize relations with Iran, seems to be working. One of Malekpour’s advocates, former Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, has said that the Canadian government is now working on the case.
The continuing monitoring of Malekpour's life sentence is a small consolation, but better than the alternative. The same is true of the current tentative freedom of Peter Steudtner and Ali Gharavi.
Ali and Peter travel the world, teaching and advising Internet users on how to improve their privacy and digital security online (Ali was an advisor for EFF's Surveillance Self-Defence project). The two were arrested in a raid by Turkish police on a digital security workshop in July in Istanbul, along with Amnesty Turkeys' director, Idil Eser, and eight other human rights defenders.
The two technology consultants have been accused of aiding terrorists, despite the long history of both as peaceful advocates for secure online practices. After months of detention, concentrated diplomatic and public pressure led to both being released to join their families in Germany and Sweden. We're delighted that they are free, but their unjust prosecution—and that of their Turkish colleagues—continues in the Turkish courts.
Peter and Ali have dedicated their careers to sharing their knowledge of digital security with those who need it most. Dmitry Bogdanov voluntarily ran a server than anyone could use to protect their identies. Ahmed Mansoor went public with his high-tech harassment by the authorities, and improved the security of millions by doing so. Alaa encouraged a generation of Egyptians to use free software and social media to express themselves. Saeed Malekpour has spent nearly a decade in prison for giving his software away for free. What they have in common is not just a love of technology, but a wish that its power be used for good, by us all.
Their sacrifices would be recognized by Bassel Khartabil, the Syrian free culture advocate. Before his arrest and torture in 2012, Bassel was the driving force behind countless projects to turn technology for the public good in his country. He founded a hackerspace in Damascus, translated Creative Commons into a Middle Eastern context, and built out Wikipedia and Mozilla for his fellow Syrians. Bassel's generosity brought him notability and respect. His prominence and visibility as a voice outside the divided political power-bases of Syria made him an early target when the Syrian civil war became violent.
We learned this year that Bassel was killed by the Syrian government in 2015, shortly after he was removed from a civilian prison and sent into the invisibility of Syria's hidden security complexes.
The cases we cover in EFF's Offline project are all advocates for openness, transparency and the right to free expression, who have been unjustly imprisoned for their work. But transparency isn't just a noble goal for them: public visibility is what gives them hope and keeps them alive. We hope you'll keep them all your hearts as you enter 2018. Even as we mourn Bassel, we look forward to a better new year that will see our imprisoned colleagues free and safe again.
This article is part of our Year In Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2017.