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Federal investigators ordered Google to hand over personal information on viewers of specific YouTube videos, prompting questions among privacy experts about the constitutionality of such requests.

The orders, obtained by Forbes, require Google to turn over names, addresses, telephone numbers and user activity for account holders — and IP addresses, numeric identifiers of internet location, of non-account holders — who watched certain videos.

Critics said the demands threaten to turn innocent YouTube viewers into criminal suspects, violating their free speech rights under the First Amendment and privacy rights under the Fourth Amendment.

Unclear if Google complied with orders

In a Kentucky case reviewed by Forbes, undercover police sought to identify the person behind the online moniker “elonmuskwhm,” suspected of buying bitcoin for cash in potential violation of money laundering laws and rules governing the transmission of unlicensed money.

The police sent links to YouTube tutorials — that collectively garnered over 30,000 views — on drone mapping and augmented reality software and then asked Google for information on anyone who had accessed the videos from Jan. 1-8, 2023.

The court granted the order, but court records don’t reveal if Google complied.

In a separate New Hampshire case, Portsmouth police received a threat about an explosive placed in a public trash can, Forbes reported. After searching the area, police discovered they were being watched via a YouTube livestream associated with a local business.

Federal investigators believe events similar to the one in Portsmouth have occurred nationwide and requested that Google provide a list of accounts that “viewed and/or interacted with” eight YouTube livestreams, including one posted by Boston and Maine Live with 130,000 subscribers.

It remains unclear if Google provided the data in this case.

Google spokesperson Matt Bryant said the company has “a rigorous process designed to protect the privacy and constitutional rights of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement,” according to Forbes.

Bryant said Google examines each demand for legal validity, pushes back against overbroad or inappropriate requests and sometimes objects to demands entirely.

Google recently announced an update that will make it technically impossible for the company to provide information in response to geofence orders — orders that seek data from all users within a certain distance from a crime.

This move comes after a California court ruled that a geofence warrant covering several densely populated areas in Los Angeles was unconstitutional, raising hopes that courts would stop police from seeking such data.

YouTube should not identify users ‘without a valid warrant’

According to attorney and digital privacy expert Greg Glaser, social media platforms like YouTube are often considered part of the public sphere, and law enforcement agencies typically do a good job handling such evidence.

However, Glaser emphasized that a user’s unpublished personal information, such as their name and address associated with their YouTube account, should remain private.

“Without a valid warrant, YouTube should not be revealing to authorities the unpublished personal account details of its users,” Glaser told The Defender.

Glaser suggested that when videos depict criminal activity, warrants will be readily issued against those directly involved.

He also noted that for specific offenses, like the pornographic exploitation of children, simply possessing or viewing such videos is rightfully considered a criminal act.

“The right to privacy does not create a right to engage in criminal activity or conspire with criminals,” he said.

Despite this, Glaser acknowledged the need to safeguard against excessive surveillance or “dragnet spying.”

“Some states have implemented variations of a ‘Fourth Amendment Protection Act’” to address this concern, Glaser said. “These laws respect good police work and also the need for a warrant even in the electronic surveillance age,” he said.

‘Unconstitutional’ and ‘terrifying’

Privacy experts who spoke with Forbes expressed grave concerns about the constitutionality of the court orders, arguing that they threaten to undo constitutional protections.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, called the orders “unconstitutional” and “terrifying,” likening them to controversial geofence warrants.

“No one should fear a knock at the door from police simply because of what the YouTube algorithm serves up,” Fox Cahn told Forbes. “I’m horrified that the courts are allowing this.”

John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, echoed Fox Cahn’s concerns, emphasizing that online viewing habits can reveal “deeply sensitive information” about individuals, such as their political beliefs, passions and religious views.

“It’s fair to expect that law enforcement won’t have access to that information without probable cause,” Davisson told Forbes. “This order turns that assumption on its head.”

Numerous technology publications covered the Forbes article and weighed in on the controversy.

Engadget noted individuals don’t have to engage in illegal activities to have their data requested by law enforcement. Such privacy breaches often go unchallenged unless a victim engages in lengthy court battles — sometimes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote PCWorld.

Reclaim the Net characterized the government surveillance efforts as “extreme,” pointing out that unmasking everyone who watched a particular video “makes everyone a suspect” without probable cause.