Democratic Senator Ron Wyden from Oregon is demanding transparency regarding the extent to which governments can spy on Americans through their smartphones. In a letter addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Wyden seeks answers that Apple and Google have refused to disclose.
Wyden’s main concern lies in the information shared with foreign governments. The Washington Post reported that push notifications were used in investigations of the January 6, 2021, protests and the subsequent Capitol incursion. By analyzing push notifications, authorities could map out the contacts of targeted individuals.
Every push notification creates a token, which allows investigators to identify who received the notification. This practice has raised alarm bells for Wyden, who believes governments can secretly compel Apple and Google to hand over this data.
The senator’s inquiry into this matter began in the spring of 2022 when his office received a tip about foreign government agencies demanding smartphone push notification records from Apple and Google. Over the past year, Wyden’s staff has been investigating this tip, including reaching out to the two tech giants. However, the companies cited government restrictions when they failed to comply with the senator’s request for information.
Wyden contends that Apple and Google, acting as providers of push notification data, possess the capability to enable government surveillance of users’ app usage. He argues that these companies should prioritize transparency regarding the legal requests they receive, especially from foreign governments. Much like their routine notifications to users about other forms of government data requests, Apple and Google should have the ability to disclose whether they’ve been compelled to support surveillance activities. Additionally, Wyden advocates for the publication of aggregate statistics regarding the volume of demands received and, unless legally constrained, notifying individual customers about requests for their data.
Apple and Google support Wyden’s call to change the rules preventing the release of this information. Apple stated that the federal government prohibited them from sharing details but will now update their transparency reporting to include these requests. Google also backs Wyden’s commitment to keeping users informed about such requests.
As privacy and government surveillance concerns continue to grow, companies like Apple and Google must prioritize transparency and provide users with a clearer understanding of how their data is being accessed and utilized. Senator Wyden’s efforts to shed light on this issue are essential to holding governments accountable and safeguarding individual privacy in the digital age.