Monday 1 April 2024

Google receives request from federal authorities for identities of people who watched “certain YouTube videos”

 Federal authorities are asking Google to identify who watched "certain YouTube videos" between Jan. 1 and 8, 2023.

This is according to unsealed court documents viewed by media outlets, which found that federal investigators in the United States are asking for the names, addresses, telephone and other relevant user activity, and even their IP addresses.  

The demand for information comes as part of an investigation into a YouTube account going by the name "elonmuskwhm." Authorities believe elonmuskwhm is selling bitcoin for cash and is therefore breaking money laundering laws as well as running an unlicensed money transmitting business.

As part of the investigation, undercover agents reportedly sent links to YouTube tutorials that covered everything from mapping via drones and augmented reality software to elonmuskwhm. The federal investigators then asked Google to provide details on who had viewed these videos. Some of the videos received more than 30,000 views.

"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," said the federal authorities in their request to the tech giant.

Authorities increasingly demanding sensitive personal information from tech companies like Google

According to the documents viewed by media outlets, a court granted the federal government's request for information. However, the court did ask Google to not publicize the request. It is unclear if Google complied with the court order and handed over all or some of the data the authorities were asking for.

The investigation over elonmuskwhm is not the first time Google received a request from authorities for data. In another incident, authorities asked the Big Tech company for a list of accounts that "viewed and/or interacted" with eight YouTube livestreams.

Law enforcement agencies asked for the information upon learning that they were being watched by thousands of people after they began investigating an area in Portsmouth, Maine, following a report that an explosive was placed inside a trash can.

One of those livestreams was posted by the "Boston and Maine Live" account, which has over 130,000 subscribers. Law enforcement agencies warned that the live streams caused police departments in other parts of the country to also receive fake bomb threats. It is also unclear whether Google complied with the request for information.

A Google spokesperson said in a statement to media outlets that the company follows a "rigorous process" to protect the privacy of its users. But critics and privacy advocates have rightly pointed out that government agencies are easily able to sidestep any actual safeguards and are using their power to obtain sensitive information on people who just happened to watch specific YouTube videos and are not in any way doing anything illegal.

"What we watch online can reveal deeply sensitive information about us – our politics, our passions, our religious beliefs and much more," said John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It's fair to expect that law enforcement won't have access to that information without probable cause. This order turns that assumption on its head."

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