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U.S. Authorities Seek Viewer Data from YouTube in Unlicensed Money Transmitting Investigation

Published March 29, 2024
1 months ago

In an unprecedented request that raises significant privacy concerns, U.S. authorities have turned to the tech giant Google with a demand that strikes at the heart of digital privacy rights. Google, which owns the popular video-sharing platform YouTube, has been ordered to provide personal viewer data related to specific YouTube videos as part of an investigation into alleged unlicensed money transmitting and Bitcoin sales. This demand could potentially expose the personal information of tens of thousands of individuals unrelated to the case.

According to a Forbes report, the case revolves around an individual online who goes by the pseudonym “elonmuskwhm”. Suspected of engaging in unlawful financial transactions, authorities took the investigative step of forwarding to “elonmuskwhm” links to YouTube videos, instructive in nature, about drone mapping and augmented reality software.

The period in question is the first week of January 2023, during which an estimated 30,000 users had viewed the said material. The information sought by the authorities comprises names, addresses, phone numbers, and user activity logs for every YouTube account that accessed the videos. Moreover, U.S. authorities have requested the IP addresses of non-Google account holders who watched the videos.

These broad data demands risk breaching the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which safeguards citizens from unreasonable searches. Privacy experts have expressed alarm at the potential scope of this order. John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, warns about the intrusive nature of such an order which could reveal highly personal details about an individual’s political views, religious beliefs, and interests.

Google has stated that affected users would be notified via email before any personal information is disclosed to a government entity, unless legally prohibited by the request terms. Only after any such legal prohibition is lifted will users receive notice. This statement, however, does not make clear if Google actually complied with the demand, as the court documents do not specify whether the data was handed over.

The case has drawn parallels to geofence warrant requests, which have been controversially used to collect data on all users within a specified vicinity of a crime. In response to privacy advocacy and legal challenges, Google has reportedly made updates to their systems that would render complying with these geofence warrants impossible.

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