Senator: Governments spy on smartphone users via push notifications

Foreign governments are using push notifications to spy on smartphone users, a U.S. senator warned Wednesday.

In a letter to the Department of Justice, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said he believes Apple and Google must be more transparent about the data they collect from app notification records, but that the government has to permit them to do so first.

Wyden said his office received a tip in spring of 2022 saying foreign government agencies were “demanding” Apple and Google’s push notification records. Since these have to pass through the phone’s operating system provider instead of just through apps themselves, Wyden said this puts Apple and Google “in a unique position to facilitate government surveillance of how users are using particular apps.”

The senator said his staff contacted Apple and Google about the matter during their investigation, but the companies denied their query, stating the government restricts the public release of information about the practice.

Wyden’s letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland now urges the department to repeal or modify any supposed rule that prevents this type of clarity for users.

“Apple and Google should be permitted to be transparent about the legal demands they receive, particularly from foreign governments, just as the companies regularly notify users about other types of government demands for data,” Wyden wrote in the letter. “These companies should be permitted to generally reveal whether they have been compelled to facilitate this surveillance practice, to publish aggregate statistics about the number of demands they receive, and unless temporarily gagged by a court, to notify specific customers about demands for their data.”

A multitude of apps rely on push notifications to alert smartphone users while they’re currently using the software such as with breaking news, promotions, reminders and other updates. A click on the pop-up notification takes you to the individual app, using the phone’s servers as an intermediary. 

Wyden, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, says app developers aren’t given many options if they want to have push notifications besides working through Apple and Google. That makes the tech companies rich in data about these transactions such as which app received a notification and when, data about the phone and the owner’s account and even unencrypted data in some instances.

A source confirmed to Reuters that both foreign and U.S. government agencies have asked Apple and Google for push notification data but did not identify which ones.

Apple and Google have shared statements regarding Wyden’s letter, with the former saying the method becoming public allows them the opportunity to be more transparent and the latter sharing Wyden’s “commitment to keeping users informed about these requests,” according to Reuters.