Govts ‘spying on Apple, Google users’ through push notifications

Published December 7, 2023
The logos of mobile apps, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Netflix, are displayed on a screen in this illustration picture taken on Dec 3, 2019. — Reuters/File
The logos of mobile apps, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Netflix, are displayed on a screen in this illustration picture taken on Dec 3, 2019. — Reuters/File

WASHINGTON: Unidentified governments are surveilling smart phone users via their apps’ push notifications, a US senator warned on Wednesday.

In a letter to the Department of Justice, Senator Ron Wyden said foreign officials were demanding the data from Alphabet’s Google and Apple. Although details were sparse, the letter lays out yet another path by which governments can track smart phones.

Apps of all kinds rely on push notifications to alert users to incoming messages, breaking news, and other updates. These are the audible “dings”, or visual indicators, which users get when they receive an email or their sports team wins a game. What users often do not realise is that almost all such notifications travel over Google and Apple’s servers.

That gives the two companies unique insight into the traffic flowing from those apps to their users, and in turn puts them “in a unique position to facilitate government surveillance of how users are using particular apps”, Wyden said.

He asked the Department of Justice to “repeal or modify any policies” that hindered public discussions of push notification spying.

In a statement, Apple said Wyden’s letter gave them the opening they needed to share more details with the public about how governments monitored push notifications.

“In this case, the (US) 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.”

Google said that it shared Wyden’s “commitment to keeping users informed about these requests”.

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2023

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