The U.S. government has received a court order according to which it has the right to require Google to disclose the names, addresses, phone numbers, and account activity of those users who watched certain videos on YouTube from January 1 to January 8, 2023. The request also applies to those who used the Google Chrome browser in anonymous mode: federal agents want to know their IP addresses. The request was made as part of an investigation into an unidentified person with the eloquent nickname elonmuskwhm, who is suspected of unlicensed money transfer business and money laundering (by selling bitcoins for cash).

There is an interesting twist to this investigation: undercover government agents sent several suspects links to YouTube videos of augmented reality software and UAV mapping manuals – but these videos were not private. They could be viewed by anyone, and the number of views in the time period of interest to the feds reached 30 thousand. The court’s decision, which granted the investigators’ request, says that Google must keep secret whose data it provides.

Privacy protection experts are quite confused by this approach – they believe that law enforcement officers go beyond their powers, demanding information about people who should not have violated the law. The general opinion on this was formulated by John Davisson, Senior Advisor at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

What we watch online can reveal highly sensitive information about us — our political views, our passions, our religious beliefs, and much more. It is fair to expect that law enforcement agencies will not have access to this information without a valid reason. This order turns that expectation on its head.

It is currently unknown whether the company provided the feds with the requested data. In a comment to the media, a Google spokesperson only said that the company adheres to “strict rules” to protect the privacy of its customers. However, it is customary to enforce court decisions in the United States, so most likely, the personal data of tens of thousands of users will still be at the disposal of investigators.

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