Foreign Governments Sought Smartphone User Data from Apple and Google, Says U.S. Senator

Foreign governments have been spying on smartphone users by pressuring Apple and Google to disclose push notification records, according to U.S. Senator Ron Wyden. In a letter addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Senator Wyden expressed concern over government agencies’ demand for these records. Push notifications, such as news alerts and social media notifications, pass through Apple and Google’s servers, providing valuable insights into individuals’ app usage. Wyden urged transparency and called for the repeal or modification of policies hindering Apple and Google’s ability to disclose such government requests.

Push notification records contain detailed information, including the app that received the notification, the time of receipt, the respective phone and account, and occasionally, the unencrypted text displayed. They offer a comprehensive view of individuals’ digital behavior. While Senator Wyden did not specify which governments sought push notification records, both foreign and U.S. government agencies have approached Apple and Google for this data. These agencies particularly seek metadata that can link anonymous messaging app users to specific accounts.

Apple and Google have long been proponents of transparency in disclosing government requests for user data. Senator Wyden emphasized the need for Apple and Google to have the freedom to notify their users about such data demands, similar to their practice with other types of government requests. In the United States, however, push notification records remain undisclosed to the public. Senator Wyden called on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to modify or repeal policies impeding this transparency.

Apple acknowledged the push notification record requests but did not mention the specific governments involved. A company spokesperson stated that the federal government had prohibited them from sharing any information. However, in light of this disclosure, Apple plans to update its transparency reporting to include details on these types of requests. This commitment aligns with Apple’s long-standing dedication to keeping its users informed about government inquiries.

Google’s Commitment

Google spokespersons echoed similar sentiments as Wyden, emphasizing the importance of transparency regarding push notification record requests. They highlighted Google’s track record of publishing public transparency reports, which outline the number and nature of user data requests received from governments. However, Google did not specify where it publishes information about push notification record requests or whether any restrictions apply.

Foreign governments’ actions in compelling Apple and Google to provide push notification records raise concerns regarding user privacy. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden advocates for transparency in government data requests, urging the DOJ to modify policies obstructing the disclosure of push notification records. Apple and Google have expressed their commitment to transparency and plan to update their reporting mechanisms accordingly. It remains essential to strike a balance between national security concerns and safeguarding individuals’ privacy in an increasingly digitized world.

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