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Projects, Units & Initiatives

Digital Forensics Unit

The Legal Aid Society’s Digital Forensics Unit is an innovative unit devoted to using technology to advocate for clients and fight against the erosion of digital privacy by government surveillance. The DFU was created in recognition that, as the largest public defender in New York City, The Legal Aid Society needed an internal unit that would be able to acquire, process, and analyze the vast amount of digital evidence that exists in the modern world. Consisting of three analysts, three examiners, three staff attorneys, and one supervising attorney, the DFU supports the work of the attorneys and clients of the Criminal Defense, Juvenile Rights, and Civil Practices of The Legal Aid Society.

Using industry-leading tools, the Unit assists attorneys in interpreting evidence from personal computers, mobile devices, and social media accounts. Additionally, analysts interpret cell-site location data, edit and enhance video recordings, and consult on other areas of emerging technology. The DFU provides trial preparation and litigation support to attorneys and advises them on the numerous ways that law enforcement uses technology to conduct surveillance on the public.

The Digital Forensics Unit has also been involved in fighting against violations of privacy and other core civil liberties. Members of the Unit continue to fight against law enforcement’s unregulated use of cell-site simulators, facial recognition technology, and the use of GPS location data to track individuals, among other challenges. DFU attorneys have advocated for stronger privacy rights for all people and to prevent overreaching government intrusion.

COVID-19 Response

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Digital Forensics Unit is working remotely, as much as is technologically possible. Developing alternative methods of preserving and receiving evidence, the Unit has continued to meet its responsibilities for clients and staff. Additionally, during this time, DFU has presented multiple virtual CLEs and created various training materials for the other members of The Legal Aid Society. Members of the Digital Forensics Unit have also played a role in helping the Society adjust its critical work to adapt to the requirements of remote representation.

Our Impact

  • Presenting an annual day-long training, “Decrypting a Defense,” for public defenders, civil rights attorneys, and investigators from across the United States, focusing on how the law interacts with emerging digital forensic and electronic surveillance technologies.
  • Advising New York City public defenders on technology issues appearing in their cases, such as mobile forensics, facial recognition, and controverting search warrants of digital data.
  • Played an instrumental role in the passage of the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act, a New York City law which increases transparency and oversight over the New York City Police Department’s use of sophisticated new surveillance technologies and information-sharing networks.
  • Providing evidence from mobile devices and social media accounts to strengthen claims of innocence that have resulted in charges being dismissed and client’s being released from jail.
  • Presenting trainings in digital forensics to bar associations, public defender offices, and other groups.
  • Working with other legal advocacy organizations and the activist community to fight for privacy rights and to provide know-your-rights trainings.
  • Guiding protesters and activists on the best lawful methods to protect their privacy from electronic surveillance.

In The News

CNBC: NYC lawmakers pass bill requiring police to disclose surveillance technology
NYT: Accused of a Crime, and Falling Into the ‘Technology Gap’
The Intercept: Prisons Across the U.S. Are Building Databases of Incarcerated People’s Voice Prints
Forbes: Feds Order Google to Hand Over a Load of Innocent Americans’ Locations
The Intercept: IBM Used NYPD Surveillance Footage to Let Police Search by Skin Color
NYT: Brooklyn Judge’s Ruling Raises Bar for Covert Cellphone Tracking