US Senator Ron Wyden, in a letter addressed to the US Department of Justice, has raised concerns about unidentified governments engaging in surveillance of smartphone users through their apps’ push notifications.
In the letter, Wyden asserted that foreign officials have been compelling Alphabet’s Google and Apple to provide data. While details about the surveillance are limited, the letter shows a new avenue through which governments can monitor smartphones.
Push notifications are integral to various apps, alerting users to incoming messages, news updates, and other information. These notifications typically travel through Google and Apple’s servers, giving these companies unique insights into the data flow between apps and users. Senator Wyden argued that this positions the tech giants to facilitate government surveillance of users’ app usage. He urged the Department of Justice to reconsider or modify any policies that hinder discussions on push notification spying.
Push notifications, often overlooked by users, have occasionally raised privacy concerns due to the challenge of deploying them without transmitting data to major tech companies like Google and Apple. Earlier this year, a French developer highlighted the privacy implications of push notifications, calling them a “privacy nightmare.”
Apple responded to Wyden’s letter by stating that it would now share more details with the public about how governments monitor push notifications, citing previous restrictions imposed by the federal government. Google expressed a commitment to keeping users informed about such requests.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on the push notification surveillance or whether it had restricted Apple or Google from discussing it. Wyden’s letter referred to a “tip” as the information source, with a source confirming that both foreign and U.S. government agencies have sought metadata related to push notifications. This data could help link anonymous users of messaging apps to specific Apple or Google accounts.
The source did not identify the foreign governments involved but described them as democracies allied with the United States. The duration of such information gathering through push notifications remains unclear.