If you've watched these YouTube videos, the police may have requested your contact details from Google

If you've watched these YouTube videos, the police may have requested your contact details from Google

If you've ever wondered whether your search or viewing history might land you on some sort of 'list,' your concern may indeed be justified.

In recently revealed court documents reviewed by Forbes magazine, Google was ordered to provide the names, addresses, phone numbers, and activities of YouTube account users and IP addresses (identifying the origin of the connection) who viewed certain YouTube videos, as part of a large-scale criminal investigation by federal investigators.

The videos were sent by undercover police officers to an alleged cryptocurrency launderer under the pseudonym "elonmuskwhm". The investigators sent links to public tutorials on YouTube. The videos were viewed more than 30,000 times, presumably by thousands of users unrelated to the case. Google, YouTube's parent company, was ordered by federal investigators to discreetly hand over all this viewer data for the period January 1 to January 8, 2023, but it's unclear whether Google had complied with the request.

The data recovery demanded is worrying in itself, according to privacy experts. Federal investigators argued that the request was legally justified because "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", citing a justification used by other police forces across the country.

In one case in New Hampshire, police requested similar data when investigating bomb threats that were being streamed live on YouTube - the order specifically asked for audience information at certain times during the live broadcasts.

Privacy experts are concerned about the precedent set by the court order. Activists have been calling on Google to be more transparent about its data-sharing policies for years, with fears fueled by ongoing open arrests of protesters and the rampant statewide criminalization of abortion. In December, Google updated its privacy policies to allow users to save their location data directly on their devices rather than in the cloud and shortened the retention time for such storage.

"With all law enforcement demands, we have a rigorous process designed to protect the privacy and constitutional rights of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement. We examine each demand for legal validity, consistent with developing case law, and we routinely push back against overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands for user data, including objecting to some demands entirely" said Google spokesperson Matt Bryant.