Foreign governments are spying on civilians through notifications received on their smartphones, according to a US senator.
In a letter to the US Department of Justice, Senator Ron Wyden said his office received a “tip” about a year ago that government agencies in foreign countries were demanding smartphone push notification records from Google and Apple.
“My staff have been investigating this tip for the past year, which included contacting Apple and Google,” Wyden wrote.
Both tech giants told Wyden’s office that “information about this practice is restricted from public release by the government.”
Wyden urges the US Department of Justice to “repeal or modify any policies that impede this transparency.”
His letter details how push notifications work and the type of data Apple and Google can collect through these instant messages pushed to people’s screens.
“Apple and Google are in a unique position to facilitate government surveillance of how users are using particular apps,” Wyden’s plea continues. “The data these two companies receive includes metadata, detailing which app received a notification and when, as well as the phone and associated Apple or Google account to which that notification was intended to be delivered.”
Push notifications often also carry unencrypted plain text, the letter adds.
“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 stresses.
Apple is happy with Wyden’s “push” for more transparency into the matter, Reuters reports. The Cupertino tech giant says the senator’s move is finally giving them the opening to share more details with the public about how governments monitor the push notification service.
“In this case, the federal government prohibited us from sharing any information," the iPhone maker said in a statement to inquiring news outlets. “Now that this method has become public we are updating our transparency reporting to detail these kinds of requests.”
Google, for its part, said it shared Wyden's “commitment to keeping users informed about these requests.”
Wyden’s source declined to identify the foreign governments involved, only describing them as “democracies allied to the United States,” according to Reuters.