Google reportedly shared video viewer identities with US authorities

  • According to a report by Forbes, Google shared YouTube viewer information with the US government upon request.
  • This was discovered in unsealed court documents, with information shared between 1st and 8th January last year.
  • The handing over of information was part of an investigation into a crypto account believed to be dealing in money laundering.

Authorities in the United States have obtained the information of YouTube viewers, according to a report from Forbes (paywall) after Google was requested to share the identities of viewers who were both signed in and signed out of the platform.

This was discovered by the publication in unsealed court documents, where viewer identities for videos between the period of 1st to 8th January 2023 were requested by federal authorities in the US.

The tech giant reportedly handed over viewer names, addresses, and their user activity on the platform as part of an investigation into a potential money laundering operation involving someone known as elonmuskwhm.

This individual sells Bitcoin for cash, and is therefore deemed to be in violating of the US’ money laundering laws, as well as illegally transmitting money as they have no licence to do so.

Interestingly, or perhaps worryingly, Google handed over the identities of users who were not logged into the platform either, sharing their IP addresses with US authorities.

As for the videos in question, they are believed to have been watched more than 30 000 times and were not private, which as Engadget points out, means US authorities were requesting the information of a large number of YouTube users.

“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,” Forbes says the authorities told Google.

While the information being requested is part of a criminal investigation, the fact that Google simply handed it over without given any kind of notice to users is concerning. Added to this is the fact that while the company was compelled to do so under a court order, this information only came to light thanks to some sleuthing from Forbes.

“What we watch online can reveal deeply sensitive information about us—our politics, our passions, our religious beliefs, and much more,” John Davisson, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the publication regarding this report. “It’s fair to expect that law enforcement won’t have access to that information without probable cause. This order turns that assumption on its head,” he added.

All of this places the current scrutiny that the US congress has placed upon TikTok and its Chinese parent company ByteDance into sharp relief that US-owned or operated organisations are not beholden to the same rules that foreign ones are.

As such, it remains to be seen if TikTok will use this latest revelation and past cases like Cambridge Analytica to highlight the inconsistency from US lawmakers when it comes to social media platforms and the user data they access/store.

[Image – Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash]


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