Federal Authorities Are Asking Google For Data On Viewers Of Specific YouTube Videos

Federal investigators have compelled Alphabet’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) Google to provide information on viewers of specific YouTube videos that relate to potential criminal activity. Multiple court orders obtained by Forbes reveal the extent of this directive, prompting outcry from privacy experts who argue that it infringes upon constitutional protections.

One such case, recently unsealed in Kentucky, involved undercover officers attempting to identify an individual operating under the online alias “elonmuskwhm.” Suspected of engaging in bitcoin transactions for cash, potentially violating money laundering laws, the individual was targeted through YouTube interactions.

Undercover agents engaged in conversations with the user, sharing links to YouTube tutorials on drone mapping and augmented reality software. Subsequently, law enforcement sought data from Google the identity of the viewers of these tutorials, which collectively garnered over 30,000 views.

The court orders mandated Google to provide comprehensive information, including names, addresses, telephone numbers, and user activity, for all Google account users who accessed the videos within a specified timeframe. Additionally, the government sought IP addresses of non-Google account holders who viewed the content.

“There is reason to believe that these records would be relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation, including by providing identification information about the perpetrators,” the police said.

In another instance, a New Hampshire investigation revealed the use of YouTube live streams to monitor bomb threats. Federal investigators requested Google to provide a list of accounts that viewed and interacted with these streams.

These include a video uploaded by Boston and Maine Live, which boasts a subscriber base of 130,000. Mike McCormack, the individual responsible for establishing the company behind the account, known as IP Time Lapse, acknowledged awareness of the order. He mentioned that it pertained to “swatting incidents directed at the camera views at that time.”

Google, responding to inquiries, emphasized its commitment to user privacy and legal compliance. Google spokesperson Matt Bryant said the company “[examines] each demand for legal validity, consistent with developing case law, and routinely push back against overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands for user data, including objecting to some demands entirely.”

However, the company did not confirm whether it complied with the orders. The Justice Department has yet to comment on the matter.

Privacy advocates have decried the orders as unconstitutional, fearing the erosion of free speech and protection against unreasonable searches. Albert Fox-Cahn, Executive Director at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, expressed alarm over the implications, likening the orders to digital dragnets.

“No one should fear a knock at the door from police simply because of what the YouTube algorithm serves up. I’m horrified that the courts are allowing this,” said Fox-Cahn.

Privacy experts argue that such measures undermine fundamental constitutional rights, raising parallels with controversial geofence warrants. John Davisson, Senior Counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, highlighted the sensitivity of online activities and the expectation of privacy, suggesting that “it’s fair to expect that law enforcement won’t have access to that information without probable cause.”

In December, Google unveiled an update aimed at rendering it technically infeasible for the company to furnish data in response to geofence orders. Before this development, a California court had deemed a geofence warrant, which encompassed multiple densely-populated regions in Los Angeles, unconstitutional. This ruling sparked optimism that judicial scrutiny would deter law enforcement agencies from pursuing such data requests.

This comes on the heels of a criminal charge lodged against YouTube in November by privacy consultant Alexander Hanff, alleging the platform’s scripts that detect and restrict ad blockers amount to spying on EU citizens.

“I consider YouTube’s script to be spyware — aka surveillance technology, as it is deployed without my knowledge or authorization to my device for the sole purpose of intercepting and monitoring my behavior (whether or not ads load in my browser or are blocked by an ad blocker),” Hanff said.

Information for this briefing was found via Forbes and the sources mentioned. The author has no securities or affiliations related to the organizations discussed. Not a recommendation to buy or sell. Always do additional research and consult a professional before purchasing a security. The author holds no licenses.

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