A U.S. lawmaker issued a warning on Wednesday, claiming that unidentified countries are monitoring smartphone users through push notifications from their apps.
Senator Ron Wyden said that foreign authorities were requesting the data from Apple and Alphabet’s Google in a letter to the Department of Justice. The letter lays out yet more ways for governments to follow smartphones, despite the lack of specifics.
Push notifications are a vital tool used by apps of all kinds to notify users of new messages, breaking news, and other updates. These are the visual cues or aural “dings” that users hear or see when a message occurs or an email is received. Users frequently are unaware that practically all of these notifications pass via the servers of Apple and Google.
The two companies are thus “in a unique position to facilitate government surveillance of how users are using particular apps,” according to Wyden, because they have unique insight into the traffic that is moving from those apps to their customers. He requested that “repeal or modify any policies” from the Department of Justice that impeded public discourse on push notification spying.
Apple stated in a statement that Wyden’s letter provided them with the opportunity to inform the public about the specifics of how governments tracked push notifications.
“In this case, the federal government prohibited us from sharing any information,” the company said in a statement.
“Now that this method has become public we are updating our transparency reporting to detail these kinds of requests.”
Wyden referenced a “tip” in his letter as the source of the spying information. The foreign countries involved in the requests were characterized as democratic allies of the United States by the source, who declined to identify them.
Although most users don’t give push notifications much thought, techies have periodically taken an interest in them due of how challenging it is to implement them without giving Google or Apple access to user data.
Push notifications are a way that apps transmit data to the major U.S. tech companies, but users and developers are frequently unaware of this, according to French developer David Libeau, who called them “a privacy nightmare.”