FEderal researchers have ordered Google to provide information on all viewers of selected YouTube videos, according to multiple court orders obtained by Forbes. Privacy experts from several civil rights groups told the story Forbes they believe the orders are unconstitutional because they threaten to turn innocent YouTube viewers into criminal suspects.

In a freshly opened suitcase from Kentucky, reviewed by Forbesundercover agents were trying to identify the person behind the online nickname “elonmuskwhm,” who they suspect is selling bitcoin for cash, potentially violating money laundering laws and regulations surrounding unlicensed money transfers.

In conversations with the user in early January, undercover agents sent links to YouTube tutorials for drone mapping and augmented reality software, then asked Google for information about who had viewed the videos, which have collectively been viewed more than 30,000 times.

The court orders show that the government orders Google to provide the names, addresses, phone numbers and user activities of all Google account users who accessed the YouTube videos between January 1 and January 8, 2023. The government also wanted the IP addresses of non-Google account owners who viewed the videos. Police argued: “There is reason to believe that this data would be relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation, including by providing identifying information about the perpetrators.”

“No one should have to fear a knock on the door from the police simply because of what the YouTube algorithm has to offer.”

Albert Fox-Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project

The court granted the injunction and Google was told to keep the request secret until it was released earlier this week, when it was obtained by Forbes. The court documents do not show whether Google provided data in the case.

In another example, involving an investigation in New Hampshire, Portsmouth police received a threat from an unknown man that an explosive device had been placed in a garbage bin in a public place. The warrant states that after police searched the area, they learned they were being monitored via a YouTube livestream camera from a local business. Federal investigators believe similar events have occurred in the US, where bomb threats were made and police were watched on YouTube.

They asked Google for a list of accounts that “watched and/or interacted with” eight YouTube livestreams and associated identifying information during specific time frames. That included a video posted by Boston and Maine Live, which has 130,000 subscribers. Mike McCormack, who founded the company behind the IP Time Lapse account, said he was aware of the order, adding that it related to “swatting incidents targeting the CCTV footage at the time.”

Again, it’s unclear whether Google provided the data.

“With all law enforcement requirements, we have a rigorous process designed to protect the privacy and constitutional rights of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” said Google spokesperson Matt Bryant. “We investigate every claim for legal validity, consistent with developing case law, and we routinely oppose overly broad or otherwise inappropriate demands for user data, including rejecting some demands outright.”

The Justice Department had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.

Privacy experts said the orders were unconstitutional because they threatened to strip away First and Fourth Amendment protections covering freedom of speech and freedom from unreasonable searches. “This is the latest chapter in a disturbing trend in which we see government agencies increasingly turning search warrants into digital dragnets. It’s unconstitutional, it’s terrifying and it happens every day,” said Albert Fox-Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “No one should have to fear a knock on the door from the police just because of what the YouTube algorithm has to offer. I am shocked that the courts are allowing this.”

He said the orders were “as chilling” as geofence guarantees, with Google ordered to provide data on all users close to a crime. Google announced an update in December that makes it technically impossible for the technology giant to provide information in response to geofence orders. Previously, a California court had ruled that a geofence order for several densely populated areas in Los Angeles was unconstitutional, leading to hopes that the courts would stop police from searching for the data.

“What we view online can reveal very sensitive information about us – our politics, our passions, our religious beliefs and much more,” said John Davisson, senior advisor at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “It is reasonable to expect that law enforcement will not have access to that information without probable cause. This order turns that assumption on its head.”


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