Foreign governments are reportedly using push notifications on popular smartphone apps like those from Apple and Google to spy on users, according to a warning issued by US Senator Ron Wyden. In a letter addressed to the Department of Justice, Wyden highlighted concerns that foreign officials are pressuring tech giants like Google and Apple to hand over user data. This revelation sheds light on a new method governments may be using to track smartphone users.
Push notifications are a common feature in apps, alerting users with sounds or visual cues about messages, news updates, or other information. What many users may not realize is that these notifications often pass through servers owned by Google and Apple.
This unique access gives these tech companies insights into the data flow between apps and users, potentially enabling them to assist governments in monitoring how specific apps are being used, Wyden stated. He urged the Department of Justice to remove any barriers that prevent discussions about this type of surveillance.
In response to Wyden's letter, Apple mentioned that previously they were restricted by federal regulations from disclosing such information but will now update their transparency reporting to provide details about these requests. Similarly, Google expressed its commitment to keeping users informed about these types of government requests.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on the alleged push notification surveillance or whether it had imposed any restrictions on Apple or Google from discussing the matter.
Wyden's letter referred to a "tip" as the source of this surveillance information. Although the senator's staff did not offer further details about the tip, a source familiar with the situation confirmed that both foreign and US government agencies have approached Apple and Google seeking metadata related to push notifications. This data could potentially link anonymous users of messaging apps to specific Apple or Google accounts.
While the specific foreign governments making these requests were not disclosed, the source described them as democratic allies of the United States. However, the duration for which such information has been collected through this method remains unknown.
Push notifications, often overlooked by users, have attracted attention due to the challenge of deploying them without inadvertently sending data to tech giants like Google or Apple. Earlier this year, French developer David Libeau raised concerns, calling push notifications "a privacy nightmare" as users and developers were often unaware of the data transmission to these tech companies.