Dec 6, 2023 - Technology

Apple, Google warn governments can spy on you via push notifications

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Law enforcement officials have found a new data source to mine as part of their investigations: the Android and iPhone push notifications that typically run through Apple or Google's servers.

Why it matters: While often mundane, push notifications can offer clues to where someone is located, who they are communicating with and more.

Driving the news: As Reuters reported, Senator Ron Wyden wrote a letter to the Department of Justice, noting that unspecified foreign officials were demanding push notification information from Google and Apple.

  • Push notifications can serve a variety of functions from notifying someone of a new message to delivering news or other updates.
  • While Apple and Google don't generally sit between an app and the servers it connects with, the notifications that an app sends to users typically do flow through those companies' servers.
  • Until Sen. Wyden's disclosure this particular avenue for governments to access personal data was not widely known.

What they're saying: Apple said it had been prohibited from disclosing the requests by the U.S. government, but now that the method has been detailed it will include this in future reports that detail law enforcement data requests.

  • "Apple is committed to transparency and we have long been a supporter of efforts to ensure that providers are able to disclose as much information as possible to their users," the company said in a statement to Axios.
  • "In this case, the federal government prohibited us from sharing any information and now that this method has become public we are updating our transparency reporting to detail these kinds of requests."

Google, meanwhile, said in a statement that it was "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 Sen. Wyden.

  • "We share the Senator's commitment to keeping users informed about these requests," Google said in a statement to Axios.

Be smart: The existence of such law enforcement requests suggests that those concerned with privacy may want to turn off notifications for sensitive apps.

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