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Federal investigators have issued court orders requiring Google to provide information on all viewers of specific YouTube videos, raising concerns among privacy experts that this violates the constitutional rights of innocent viewers. In one case from Kentucky, undercover cops sought information on a user suspected of selling bitcoin for cash, potentially violating money laundering laws. They asked Google for information on viewers of YouTube tutorials on drones and augmented reality software, watched over 30,000 times. The government requested names, addresses, phone numbers, and user activity for Google account users who accessed the videos, as well as IP addresses of non-account owners.

The court granted the order and Google was instructed to keep it secret until it was unsealed recently, when Forbes obtained the information. It is unclear whether Google provided the requested data in this case. In another incident in New Hampshire, federal investigators believe that bomb threats were made and police were watched via YouTube live stream cameras associated with local businesses. This led them to request information from Google on accounts that interacted with specific YouTube live streams during certain timeframes. Google spokesperson Matt Bryant stated that the company has strict processes in place to protect the privacy and constitutional rights of users when responding to law enforcement demands.

Privacy experts have criticized the orders, calling them unconstitutional and a violation of free speech and protection against unreasonable searches under the 1st and 4th Amendments. They argue that government agencies are increasingly using search warrants as digital dragnets, which is concerning. Albert Fox-Cahn, executive director at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, compared the orders to geofence warrants, where Google has been ordered to provide data on all users in the vicinity of a crime. He expressed concern over the courts allowing such orders and emphasized the sensitivity of online viewing habits in revealing personal information.

John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, highlighted the importance of probable cause in granting law enforcement access to sensitive online information, such as political beliefs or religious views. He argued that the court order in this case undermines this principle and turns assumptions about privacy rights on their head. The Justice Department had not responded to requests for comment on the matter. It is important for individuals to be aware of the implications of online activity and the potential for law enforcement to access their private information without proper justification.

Google’s decision to push back against inappropriate demands for user data reflects a commitment to protecting user privacy while cooperating with law enforcement investigations. With the growing trend of government agencies seeking broad access to online data through search warrants, it is crucial for individuals to understand their rights and for courts to uphold constitutional protections. The issue raises important questions about the balance between law enforcement needs and individual rights to privacy in the digital age.

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