Recently, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden raised alarms about a concerning practice: the surveillance of smartphone users through application notifications. As reported by Reuters, in a letter addressed to the Department of Justice, Wyden revealed that foreign officials were demanding data from Google and Apple, which could be used to carry out this surveillance.
The ban on Apple and Google from discussing the issue has been lifted
Applications heavily rely on push notifications to inform us about incoming messages, breaking news, and other updates. These notifications, whether with sound or simply visual, are a daily part of using our phones. They’re delivered by Google and Apple servers and, apparently, can be used for much darker purposes than intended.
Through the delivery information of these notifications, accessible to the developers within the app ecosystem they’ve created, certain conclusions about users can be drawn. The opening time, timing, responses to specific messages, and more are details developers might expect to know.
For instance, it allows a news app to adjust the time of the daily summary’s arrival for maximum reach or enables a game to remind us to finish our pending game precisely when we’re most likely to be engaged with our phones or not have the “Do Not Disturb” mode activated. These practices are common and taken for granted, but when certain governments are behind an app or several, things get complicated.
In this regard, Senator Wyden urged the Department of Justice to “repeal or amend any policy” that prevents public discussions about spying through push notifications. In response, Apple stated that Wyden’s letter has given them the opportunity to share more details with the public about how governments monitor these notifications—an action they couldn’t take without breaking the law.
“In this case, the federal government prohibited us from sharing any information,” Apple said in a statement. “Now that this method has been made public, we are updating our transparency report to detail these types of requests.”
According to Reuters, the Department of Justice declined to comment on push notification surveillance or whether it had prevented Apple or Google from discussing it. Reuters reported that Wyden’s information came from an undisclosed source tip. However, a source familiar with the matter confirmed that both foreign and American government agencies have been requesting metadata related to push notifications from Apple and Google.
This, as reported by Reuters, could help link anonymous users of messaging apps to specific Apple or Google accounts. While the governments involved in these requests were not identified, they were described as “democracies allied with the United States.”
The extent and duration of this data collection remain uncertain, but the facts underscore the growing concern for privacy in the digital age and the need for a broader public debate on the matter. Something that now, both Apple and Google can engage in without breaking the law.