Senator Warns Governments Are Spying on Smartphone Users Through Push Notifications

Senator Warns Governments Are Spying on Smartphone Users Through Push Notifications

The push notifications you get on your smartphone during the day may be more than just annoying interruptions, according to one U.S. senator whose office has been looking into them.

Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden released a letter sent Wednesday to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking that the Department of Justice no longer prevent tech giants Apple and Google from releasing information about smartphone app notification records, Reuters reported.

According to the letter, Wyden’s office has been looking into foreign governments requesting — and apparently receiving — information about smartphone users without their knowledge.

The investigation followed a tip Wyden said his office received roughly 18 months ago, in the spring of 2022.

In trying to follow up on that tip, however, Wyden’s office hit a roadblock: both companies told his staff that “information about this practice is restricted from public release by the government.”

Push notifications, the letter explained, are those “instant alerts” a smartphone user receives periodically to inform them of a new email, text message, news update or other information. While users may assume they come directly from an app on their phones, they actually “pass through a kind of digital post office run by the phone’s operating system provider.”

Android users receive push notifications through Google‘s Firebase Cloud Messaging, and iPhone users get theirs via Apple‘s Push Notification Service.

Either way, that “digital post office” receives and then stores information about the smartphone user, including, in some cases, “unencrypted content, which could range from backend directives for the app to the actual text displayed to a user in an app notification,” the senator wrote.

That’s a potential major privacy issue, one that the senator said may be exploited by foreign governments.

“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,” Wyden said, before implying that the reason they had been unable to do so was due to DOJ policy.

“I would ask that the DOJ repeal or modify any policies that impede this transparency,” he added.

An unnamed source told Reuters that he was unaware of how long the two tech companies had been storing and sharing user data and did not identify the countries involved, describing them only as “democracies allied to the United States,” according to the outlet.

“Earlier this year French developer David Libeau said users and developers were often unaware of how their apps emitted data to the US tech giants via push notifications, calling them ‘a privacy nightmare,'” Reuters wrote.

You can read Wyden’s letter in its entirety below.

Ron Wyden Letter by The Western Journal on Scribd

Neither the DOJ nor Google responded to a request by Reuters for comment, but Apple appeared willing, perhaps even pleased, to make such information public.

“In this case, the federal government prohibited us from sharing any information,” Apple said in a statement to Reuters. “Now that this method has become public we are updating our transparency reporting to detail these kinds of requests.”

This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.

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