Senate Democrat says governments spying on smartphone users through push notifications

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Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) warned Wednesday that foreign governments could be using push notifications to spy on smartphone users.

Wyden said in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland that his office received a tip last year that foreign governments were asking Apple and Google for their records of smartphone push notifications. When contacted by Wyden’s office on the subject, Apple and Google said they were not permitted under government policy to release such information, the senator said.

Wyden is demanding in the letter that the Justice Department lift any restrictions barring Apple and Google from discussing the legal asks they receive from other governments. He argued users should be aware when governments ask for information about their data.

“Apple and Google should be permitted to be transparent about the legal demands they receive, particularly from foreign governments, just as the companies regularly notify users about other types of government demands for data,” he wrote.

“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,” he continued. “I would ask that the [Justice Department] repeal or modify any policies that impede this transparency.”

Wyden explained in the letter that push notifications are not sent by individual apps but instead facilitated by the smartphone’s operating provider. He said because companies like Apple and Google serve as “intermediaries” for push notifications, they can store the data of the notifications.

He reiterated in the letter that Apple and Google “are in a unique position to facilitate government surveillance of how users are using particular apps.” He said they could pass along data to governments, including which app received the notification as well as whose Apple or Google account the notification was sent to.

“We were the first major company to publish a public transparency report sharing the number and types of government requests for user data we receive, including the requests referred to by Senator Wyden. We share the Senator’s commitment to keeping users informed about these requests,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill.

The Hill has reached out to the Justice Department and Apple for comment.

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