Investigators working for the federal government previously ordered Google to hand over the data of YouTube creators and viewers, according to court documents reviewed by Forbes. Legal watchdog groups and civil rights experts say these are patently unconstitutional acts, as they aim to preemptively turn people into criminal suspects.

Undercover law enforcement agents solicited information that would reveal the personal identity of a user named “elonmuskwhm,” who was suspected of being involved in a money laundering scheme related to bitcoin purchases that might have violated unlicensed monetary transactions.

Learn the benefits of becoming a Valuetainment Member and subscribe today!

The Kentucky-based case revealed conservations from January in which the agents asked Google who had viewed YouTube videos of mapping tutorials via drone and augmented reality software. The videos had more than 30,000 views altogether. The agents asked the tech giant to give them the names, addresses, telephone numbers, and user activity of all the Google accounts that accessed the videos between the first and the eighth of January 2023, as well as the IP addresses of those who watched them without being logged into an account.

“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,” the feds argued.

The documents reveal the court granted the order, and that Google was told to keep it a secret. Whether Google complied with the order is not clear from the documents.

In a separate case reviewed by Forbes, federal investigators ordered Google to give them the identities of those who watched “or interacted with” YouTube livestreams where users called in bomb threats and recorded the police showing up to the location, a practice known online as “swatting.” One such account was Boston and Maine Live, which has 130,000 subscribers.

“With all law enforcement demands, 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 spokesman Matt Bryant. “We examine each demand for legal validity, consistent with developing case law, and we routinely push back against overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands for user data, including objecting to some demands entirely.”

“This is the latest chapter in a disturbing trend where we see government agencies increasingly transforming search warrants into digital dragnets. It’s unconstitutional, it’s terrifying and it’s happening every day,” said executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project Albert Fox-Cahn, who argues it violates protections guaranteed by the 1st and 4th amendments. “No one should fear a knock at the door from police simply because of what the YouTube algorithm serves up. I’m horrified that the courts are allowing this.”

Shane Devine is a writer covering politics, economics, and culture for Valuetainment. Follow Shane on X (Twitter).

Add comment