YouTube ordered to hand over data on people who watched specific videos

U.S. authorities ordered Google to reveal personal information about the viewers of selected YouTube videos due to an unidentified individual’s engagement with the content, reports Forbes.

Undercover agents were in conversation with someone using the online pseudonym “elonmuskwhm”.

Authorities were investigating the person for unlicensed money transmitting and selling Bitcoin for cash.

After sending “elonmuskwhm” YouTube tutorials about mapping via drones and augmented reality software, the agents asked Google for the personal information of everyone who had watched the videos between 1 and 8 January 2023.

Around 30,000 people watched the videos during that period.

The information requested included the names, addresses, telephone numbers and user activity of all the accounts that viewed the content, potentially leaving the personal information of 29,999 people unrelated to the case in the hands of the U.S. government.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against unreasonable and unlawful searches.

Crucially, it was not the inherent nature of the videos viewed by elonmuskwhm that triggered the search; instead, these were the videos sent by the agents for them to view.

If you happened to stumble across the video thanks to the YouTube algorithm suggesting it during that time, Google would also have presented your account information to U.S. authorities.

Authorities also requested the Internet Protocol addresses of viewers who were non-Google account holders.

Forbes reported that Google was ordered to keep the requests secret until the court documents were unsealed last week.

The court records do not state whether Google provided the data.

Google’s Privacy and Terms

Google does mention in its ‘Privacy and Terms’ that notice will be provided via email to a user before any personal information is provided to a government agency.

However, it also mentions that “we won’t give notice when legally prohibited under the terms of the request. We’ll provide notice after a legal prohibition is lifted,” the terms read.

In other words, if Google had provided the information to U.S. authorities, those involved should have been notified when the court records were unsealed.

“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 Centre.

“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.”

Not the first time

Forbes noted that a similar case occurred in 2022 in Portsmouth in the U.S., after an anonymous bomb threat. After searching the area, police realised they were being watched on a live stream.

As a result, police demanded the account details of the viewers of eight live streams from the area, one broadcasted by an account with 130,000 subscribers.

Privacy experts have deemed this federal action unconstitutional as it goes against a citizen’s right to free speech and freedom from unreasonable searches — the First and Fourth Amendments in the U.S. Constitution.

These search warrants are being compared to geofence warrants, where Google has been instructed to provide information on all users within a certain vicinity of a crime.

However, Google has implemented an update to make it impossible to provide this information.

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YouTube ordered to hand over data on people who watched specific videos