Senator Warns Our Phones Are Spying On Us

Smartphone push notifications, often perceived as harmless alerts, raise concerns for Oregon Democrat Senator Ron Wyden, who suggests they could be more than interruptions. Senator Wyden’s office is investigating potential privacy issues tied to smartphone app notification records. In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Wyden urges the Department of Justice to grant tech giants Apple and Google permission to disclose information on these records.

The inquiry stems from a tip received by Wyden’s office approximately 18 months ago, revealing that foreign governments have been obtaining smartphone user information without their knowledge. However, Apple and Google claimed governmental restrictions on sharing information when Wyden’s office sought clarification.

Instant alerts for new emails, text messages, and news updates are conveyed through push notifications, which traverse a digital post office managed by the phone’s system service provider. Android users access push notifications via Firebase Cloud Messaging that Google uses, while iPhone users receive them through Apple’s Push Notification Service. Irrespective of the platform, the digital post office preserves user information, encompassing unencrypted content like backend directives for apps or text featured in notifications.

This potential privacy concern raises worries about exploitation by foreign governments. Senator Wyden contends that companies like Apple and Google should be allowed to disclose whether they have been compelled to facilitate such surveillance. He advocates for publishing aggregate statistics on the number of demands received. He suggests that, unless restricted by a court, they should notify specific customers about demands for their data.

Wyden highlights Department of Justice policies as hindrances to transparency, urging reconsideration or amendment. While the implicated nations are unspecified, an undisclosed source characterizes them as democracies aligned with the United States.

Earlier this year, French developer David Libeau expressed privacy concerns about how apps transmit data to U.S. tech giants through push notifications. While the Department of Justice and Google have not commented, Apple is willing to share information, noting its prior prohibition and commitment to updating transparency reporting with details on these requests. Senator Wyden’s investigation seeks to illuminate this matter and implores the Department of Justice to enable tech giants to provide transparency regarding app notifications.