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Authorities reportedly ordered Google to reveal the identities of some YouTube videos' viewers

You apparently don't have to do anything illegal for law enforcement to ask for your Google data.

Oscar Wong via Getty Images

Federal authorities in the US asked Google for the names, addresses, telephone numbers and user activity of the accounts that watched certain YouTube videos between January 1 and 8, 2023, according to unsealed court documents viewed by Forbes. People who watched those videos while they weren't logged into an account weren't safe either, because the government also asked for their IP addresses. The investigators reportedly ordered Google to hand over the information as part of an investigation into someone who uses the name "elonmuskwhm" online.

Authorities suspect that elonmuskwhm is selling bitcoin for cash and is, thus, breaking money laundering laws, as well as running an unlicensed money transmitting business. Undercover agents reportedly sent the suspect links to videos of YouTube tutorials for mapping via drones and augmented reality software in their conversations back in early January. Those videos, however, weren't private and had been collectively viewed by over 30,000 times, which means the government was potentially asking Google for private information on quite a large number of users. "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," authorities reportedly told the company.

Based on the documents Forbes had seen, the court granted the order but had asked Google to keep it under wraps. It's also unclear if Google handed over the data the authorities were asking for. In another incident, authorities asked the company for a list of accounts that "viewed and/or interacted" with eight YouTube livestreams. Cops requested for that information after learning that they were being watched through a stream while they were searching an area following a report that an explosive was placed inside a trashcan. One of those video livestreams was posted by the Boston and Maine Live account, which has over 130,000 subscribers.

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A Google spokesperson told Forbes that the company follows a "rigorous process" to protect the privacy of its users. But critics and privacy advocates are still concerned that government agencies are overstepping and are using their power to obtain sensitive information on people who just happened to watch specific YouTube videos and aren't 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," John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told Forbes. "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."