Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini on Thursday urged the Department of Justice to continue pushing tech companies to provide law enforcement with encrypted communications of suspected gang members and other criminals, saying the issue is integral to combating MS-13 on Long Island.
Sini, testifying via teleconference Thursday before the DOJ's Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, cited a joint investigation last year between his office and federal officials in which 215 phone lines were wiretapped. He said the wiretap, which resulted in the arrests of 96 suspected MS-13 gang members and associates, illustrates what's at stake.
"Our ability to effectively conduct this type of surveillance is currently hampered by the use of encryption and other tools to thwart law enforcement’s lawful efforts to obtain evidence of criminal wrongdoing," Sini said, testifying along with Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart.
The MS-13 street gang is responsible for at least 30 murders on Long Island since 2016, authorities have said.
The battle between law enforcement and big tech emerged publicly after the 2015 San Bernardino, California terrorist shooting when Apple refused to unlock the suspected shooter's phone for the FBI, which ultimately obtained the data through a third-party, according to news reports.
Sini, in an interview after testifying, said local law enforcement has had similar challenges in gaining access, prompting his office to invest in both technology and training to try to keep up with rapid advancements. Sini told the panel that federal funding is needed to assist local prosecutors with electronic surveillance.
"I have wiretap rooms throughout the county," Sini said.
He recommended the DOJ convene a task force to strategize new methods and propose laws to ease restrictions on law enforcement after obtaining a court-ordered wiretap or warrant.
Sini proposed that law enforcement be able to:
- Access real time surveillance of electronic communications, regardless of encryption or provider.
- Obtain historical content, such as text messages, from providers.
- Access locked phones seized during an investigation.
- Store and analyze “packet data," which includes photos, video and web surfing history
- Invest in interception technology that is not surpassed by the latest communications technology.
Privacy advocates have sided with Apple and other tech companies who have argued encryption is essential to safeguarding the personal information of billions of consumers from hackers and other criminals.
President Donald Trump in January tweeted about the issue, writing: "We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements."
Sini called the privacy rights argument "disingenuous," saying decryption would only be applicable after probable cause has been established and prosecutors gain a court order.
"These companies are going to make billions of dollars because of the democratic infrastructure, the capitalistic infrastructure we have in America, [so] they should not be allowed to impede law enforcement's lawful receipt of this information," Sini said. "This isn't spying on people; these are court-authorized wiretaps, court authorized warrants."
FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich, who was on the teleconference, told Sini he appreciated his presentation and added: "The AG is taking this on in a very strong way, as is the FBI director, and continuing to move the ball down the field."
Hart, who testified from her Yaphank office, focused her remarks on requested reforms to the federal government's placement of unaccompanied minors who cross the southern border illegally and have been placed with relatives and sponsors across the country, including many on Long Island.
Hart said most of the dozens of suspected MS-13 gang members arrested in connection with the 17 killings investigated in 2016 and 2017 were foreign nationals placed on Long Island through the program.
"The current vetting and screening system of sponsors is in dire need of improvement," said Hart, adding that the police department would like federal officials to allow local police to investigate the sponsor and other adults living in the home and be alerted when a minor has moved.
The number of unaccompanied minors who settled with relatives and sponsors in Nassau and Suffolk counties has fallen in recent years as Trump has sough to crack down on illegal immigration.
"We found that some of them were living in outdoor man-made shelters, garages and sheds," said Hart, describing the conditions endured by some of the minors. "It was discovered that the sponsors were not properly vetted and after being placed there was no mechanism to monitor an [unaccompanied minor's] progress in the community."