The government can read your push notifications

A senator’s letter revealed that governments can compel Apple and Google to release push notification data about their customers.

The government apparently spies on us using our smartphones.

A surveillance camera looms behind a young Asian woman with long dark hair and a blue shirt smiling as she looks at her phone.

Oh, you knew that? Well, did you know they use push notifications to do it?

The news comes via a letter Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote to the DOJ requesting that it allow Apple and Google to tell the public about how various governments, including the US and foreign agencies, can compel them to turn over app notification records.

Apple then confirmed that governments do, in fact, do this, per Vice.

Push notifications…

… are those little pop-ups you get from apps, like when Amazon tells you a package has shipped.

Wyden wrote that these alerts don’t come directly from the app, but route through “digital post offices” run by Apple and Google — and app developers must use these services if they want users to receive push notifications.

What kind of data is in a notification?

Mostly metadata, the letter states, such as:

  • The phone and associated Apple or Google account.
  • Which app the notification came from and when.
  • Possibly unencrypted content, such as the text in the notification.

What does this mean apart from the government potentially knowing I love to know when the latest New York Times crossword drops?

An anonymous source told Reuters that agencies have used this data to link anonymous messaging app users to specific accounts, and 404 Media published a warrant indicating that it could be used to identify the device someone was using.

Wyden wrote…

… that his office received a tip about this practice in 2022, but when it investigated, the Big Tech companies said that the government prohibited them from releasing any info.

Wyden’s letter isn’t asking governments to stop snooping, but for the US government to allow Google and Apple to tell the public what’s up, including statistics about the demands they receive.

Apple said that it would update its transparency reporting… now that the cat’s out of the bag.

What this means for everyone else is that if you don’t like the government prying, turn off those notifications — which you should probably do anyhow, because some of them are very annoying.

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