If you’ve ever jokingly wondered whether your search or viewing history will land you on some list, your concern may be more than justified.

In now unsealed court documents reviewed by ForbesGoogle was ordered to turn over the names, addresses, phone numbers and user activity of YouTube accounts and IP addresses that viewed select YouTube videos, part of a larger criminal investigation by federal investigators.

The videos were sent by undercover police to a suspected cryptocurrency money launderer under the username ‘elonmuskwhm’. In conversations with the bitcoin trader, researchers sent links to public YouTube tutorials on drone mapping and augmented reality software, Forbes details. The videos were viewed more than 30,000 times, probably by thousands of users who had nothing to do with the case.

YouTube’s parent company Google was ordered by federal investigators to quietly turn over all of this viewer data for the period from January 1 to January 8, 2023, but Forbes could not confirm whether Google had complied.


Users get an unsolicited preview of Google’s AI search results

The mandatory request for data is worrying in itself, according to privacy experts. Federal investigators argued that the request was legally justified because the data would be “relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation, including by providing identifying information about the perpetrators,” citing the justification used by other law enforcement agencies across the country land is used. In a New Hampshire case, police requested similar data while investigating bomb threats streamed live to YouTube – the warrant specifically requested viewer information at select timestamps during the livestreams.

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

Privacy experts, however, are concerned about the kind of precedent the court’s order sets, citing concerns about First and Fourth Amendment protections. “This is the latest chapter in a disturbing trend in which we see government agencies increasingly turning search warrants into digital dragnets,” Albert Fox-Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told the publication. “It’s unconstitutional, it’s terrifying and it happens every day.”

Advocates have been calling on Google for years to be more transparent about its data-sharing policies, with fears fueled by the continued public arrests of protesters and the creeping statewide criminalization of abortion.

In December, Google updated its privacy policy to allow users to store their location data directly on their devices instead of in the cloud, and shorten the retention time for such storage. The new policy has also indirectly hampered the long-used investigative solution in which law enforcement officials use Google location data to target suspects.

Google has been taken to court over such concerns in the past year, including two Supreme Court cases over the constitutionality of keyword searches, which force sites to turn over an individual’s Internet search data.

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