Governments spying on us Big Brother-style is nothing new. The governments of some countries are more blatant and invasive than others at doing so, but at this point, it’s to be expected that it happens almost everywhere to some degree—even the United States, as the Edward Snowden debacle showed us 10 years ago. Now, a new report indicates governments are monitoring push notifications as an information source.
In a letter to the Department of Justice, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) raised concerns about governments potentially intercepting or otherwise gaining access to push notifications delivered to users’ phones. The governments that are implicated in this practice are not laid out in the letter, but the senator said that foreign officials were requesting push notification data from Apple and Google. In a statement to Reuters, Apple said that “in this case, the federal government prohibited us from sharing any information,” going on to add that “now that this method has become public we are updating our transparency reporting to detail these kinds of requests.”
Perhaps more worryingly is the fact that the US government itself also seems to be implicated in this practice. In a recently surfaced search warrant request by a court in May 2020, an FBI agent explains in a subsection that these push tokens are stored on the servers of tech companies like Apple and Google and can help identify specific devices. It’s not clear whether the government went ahead and requested information from both companies in this specific case, but according to a source, it’s something that both the US government and other foreign governments (not identified, but described as “democracies allied to the United States”) have been doing in certain cases.
By looking at a phone’s push notifications, you can get a pretty good gist of what’s happening on that phone or get identifying details about specific devices/users. Most of them go through Google and Apple before reaching your phone, so they’re relatively easy to intercept if you can get those companies to comply with a request.
Your government is probably not looking daily at the notifications going into your phone, but if they have a reason to, they might do it.