Senator's paranoia opens door for Apple to speak out on government censorship

Posted:
in iOS edited December 2023

Senator Ron Wyden has made a crazy-sounding claim that governments are spying on people's iPhone push notifications -- and Apple says thank you, we weren't allowed to tell anyone.

The claim is that governments can glean information from how many push notifications a person gets, and from what apps
The claim is that governments can glean information from how many push notifications a person gets, and from what apps



Whether push notifications are the blessing of the age or the curse of the century, it's the fact that they all work the same way that has led to an issue. Every app that gets to pop up some alert or information on users' iPhones, does so by send it via Apple's notification system.

Similarly, any Android app sends notifications via Google's system.

It doesn't sound like fertile ground for intense government surveillance, but according to Senator Ron Wyden, it is exactly that. As first spotted by Reuters, Senator Wyden says that because of notifications, Apple and Google are "in a unique position to facilitate government surveillance of how users are using particular apps."

In an open letter to the Department of Justice, Senator Wyden says that his staff received a tip about push notifications in early 2022. That tip reportedly claimed that foreign governments were demanding push notification records -- but then the Senator found that this wasn't news to Apple, Google, or the US government.

"My staff have been investigating this tip for the past year, which included contacting Apple and Google," he wrote. "In response to that query, the companies told my staff that information about this practice is restricted from public release by the government."

It isn't clear how widespread this spying on push notifications is, nor even fully what the point is. Conceivably, there might be some benefit in knowing which apps a particular user is getting notifications from, or possibly how frequently.

Then since notifications originate with apps and there are IPs involved, some degree of location tracking could be possible.

It's a stretch, and the whole idea sounds like another case of politicians either staggeringly misunderstand technology, or assuming their supporters are.

What stops this particular claim from coming with a free tinfoil hat is that Apple has welcomed the Senator's letter.

"In this case, the federal government prohibited us from sharing any information [about push notifications]," the company said in a statement to Reuters. "Now that this method has become public we are updating our transparency reporting to detail these kinds of requests."

Senator Wyden has brought something out into the open which might be as trivial as it first appears, but discussion of which has previously been prevented.

"Apple and Google should be permitted to be transparent about the legal demands they receive, particularly from foreign governments," continued Senator Wyden's letter, "just as the companies regularly notify users about other types of government demands for data."

"These companies should be permitted to generally reveal whether they have been compelled to facilitate this surveillance practice, to publish aggregate statistics about the number of demands they receive, and unless temporarily gagged by a court, to notify specific customers about demands for their data," he continued. "I would ask that the DOJ repeal or modify any policies that impede this transparency."

Separately, Senator Wyden called on Apple to remove Absher, a Saudi government app that tracks women's movements, from the App Store. He called for that in 2019, but the app appears to still be available in the App Store.

Read on AppleInsider

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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 21
    "Apple and Google should be permitted to be transparent about the legal demands they receive, particularly from foreign governments," continued Senator Wyden's letter"

    The legal part is what is important AND also what the media/politicians/corporations typically don't bother to provide much detail on. What are the laws being used to make the data requests? Is there a solid precedent for the data requests under those laws? Is it anything that unusual from a legal standpoint? I always get the impression that the legal specifics are left out in order to make it sound more ominous. 

    Also..."censorship" probably isn't the correct word for the headline.
    ilarynxwatto_cobra
  • Reply 2 of 21
    Governments are slowing humanity down.

    They are corrupt, and evil.
    timpetuswilliamlondondesignrlongpathwatto_cobra
  • Reply 3 of 21
    Governments are slowing humanity down.

    They are corrupt, and evil.
    Human nature is the same regardless of whether it's the public sector or private sector. Neither one is more likely or less likely to be corrupt/evil than the other. 
    retrogustoauxiodarkvaderddawson100ilarynxmknelsonjahbladebaconstangwatto_cobraStrangeDays
  • Reply 4 of 21
    auxioauxio Posts: 2,746member
    Governments are slowing humanity down.

    They are corrupt, and evil.
    Human nature is the same regardless of whether it's the public sector or private sector. Neither one is more likely or less likely to be corrupt/evil than the other. 
    Exactly. And I'd argue that at least there's some level of transparency for governments operating in a democratic society (public debate, public records for many functions). A privately held company generally has far less transparency, and thus more opportunity for corruption.
    darkvaderddawson100williamlondonxyzzy01baconstangwatto_cobramuthuk_vanalingamtokyojimu
  • Reply 5 of 21
    The title of this article should be “Senator’s JUSTIFIED paranoia” fyi. 
    ex-cdnhydrogenlongpathronnmknelsonsbdudebaconstangwatto_cobrabeowulfschmidttimpetus
  • Reply 6 of 21
    Apple allows a Saudi app that tracks women?
    darkvaderwilliamlondonbaconstanggatorguy
  • Reply 7 of 21
    Entilzha said:
    The title of this article should be “Senator’s JUSTIFIED paranoia” fyi. 
    +1. Just search for "EFF + Senator + Wyden" or read his Wikipedia page. 

    I understand the author may be unaware of US politics, but the tone of the piece is exactly the opposite of what we need today to fight disinformation.
    Entilzhalongpathronnbaconstangwatto_cobratimpetus
  • Reply 8 of 21
    rob53rob53 Posts: 3,271member
    People simply don’t understand how much (spying) access governments have. Every country spies on every other country. Every country spies on its own citizens. We can try to stop it but never will. 
    longpathwatto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 21

    AppleInsider said: It isn't clear how widespread this spying on push notifications is, nor even fully what the point is. Conceivably, there might be some benefit in knowing which apps a particular user is getting notifications from, or possibly how frequently.

    This seems like an odd comment. I think the reason(s) someone would collect push notifications is that they want to know you're receiving.
    longpathItsWatchingEveryonewatto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 21
    Governments are slowing humanity down.

    They are corrupt, and evil.
    So, blanket statement, broad generalization, opinion presented as fact, and false equivalency. Nice provocative opening statement!
    williamlondonbaconstangwatto_cobradarkvadersafStrangeDays
  • Reply 11 of 21
    ex-cdn said:
    Entilzha said:
    The title of this article should be “Senator’s JUSTIFIED paranoia” fyi. 
    +1. Just search for "EFF + Senator + Wyden" or read his Wikipedia page. 

    I understand the author may be unaware of US politics, but the tone of the piece is exactly the opposite of what we need today to fight disinformation.
    +1

    Paranoia doesn’t mean what you think it does…

    1. Unjustified, suspicion and mistrust of other people or their actions.
    2. The unwarranted or delusional belief, that one is being persecuted, harassed, or betrayed by others, occurring as part of a mental condition.

    Neither apply in this case…this would be a much better article without the clickbaity headline and the aforementioned tone. Why feed the trolls when the story itself is so important? And why undermine a politician successfully doing his job the way we should theoretically want?
    xyzzy01williamlondonbaconstangwatto_cobratimpetusdarkvader
  • Reply 12 of 21
    hexclockhexclock Posts: 1,288member
    rob53 said:
    People simply don’t understand how much (spying) access governments have. Every country spies on every other country. Every country spies on its own citizens. We can try to stop it but never will. 
    Exactly. Didn’t we just learn that AT&T, in conjunction with law enforcement, and with funding from the White House, has been performing surveillance on millions of Americans for over a decade now? 
     
    watto_cobratimpetusdarkvader
  • Reply 13 of 21
    chasmchasm Posts: 3,415member
    This is only my opinion, but Sen Wyden is a pretty smart guy, so I believe this was a deliberate move on his part to expose this secrecy.

    If so, good for him.
    williamlondondanoxbaconstangwatto_cobraronntimpetusdarkvader
  • Reply 14 of 21
    danoxdanox Posts: 3,098member
    Government is always on the lookout for a fishing trip.....
    baconstangwatto_cobradarkvader
  • Reply 15 of 21
    Maybe it’s just me, but I’d consider this a bigger deal than AI seems to make it. Push notifications often include the first line or so of a message or interaction. This seems to be an ability to single tap into all push notifications and if so would include a tremendous range of information from financial payments to two factor authentication to email messages to text messages and just about everything that crosses your phone in a brief summary format. Worse yet it’s only partial context and content, so, if this were guiding any sort of action, there would be a lot of assumptions made.  This is a far more reaching view with far more simplicity than just about anything else I can imagine. Most other surveillance mechanisms, you would be tapping into single systems, and it would be much more difficult to get this comprehensive of a view from a single pipe. I’m impressed this could be suppressed for what I assume is a long period of time. 
    watto_cobratimpetusdarkvader
  • Reply 16 of 21
    sbdudesbdude Posts: 277member
    ex-cdn said:
    Entilzha said:
    The title of this article should be “Senator’s JUSTIFIED paranoia” fyi. 
    +1. Just search for "EFF + Senator + Wyden" or read his Wikipedia page. 

    I understand the author may be unaware of US politics, but the tone of the piece is exactly the opposite of what we need today to fight disinformation.
    Wouldn't be the first time.
    baconstangwatto_cobrawilliamlondon
  • Reply 17 of 21
    citpekscitpeks Posts: 247member
    hexclock said:
    rob53 said:
    People simply don’t understand how much (spying) access governments have. Every country spies on every other country. Every country spies on its own citizens. We can try to stop it but never will. 
    Exactly. Didn’t we just learn that AT&T, in conjunction with law enforcement, and with funding from the White House, has been performing surveillance on millions of Americans for over a decade now? 
     

    Room 641A was revealed back in 2006.

    What can be gathered through push notifications is up for argument, but what isn't is the lengths governments will go to to spy on their own citizens.  Including free democracies like the U.S., Britain, and other members of the "Five Eyes."  It's not just reserved for dictatorial countries and other "evildoers."

    But, the author has probably been conditioned and desensitized to this kind of thing.  His government is considering forcing users to submit facial scans to watch porn, no?

    And would that be captured, pre- or post- "O-face?"  Maybe both for to improve the reliability of the data. :D

    beowulfschmidttimpetusdarkvader
  • Reply 18 of 21
    safsaf Posts: 6member
    Governments are slowing humanity down.

    They are corrupt, and evil.
    What's the alternative.  Anarchy doesn't seem workable either.
    StrangeDays
  • Reply 19 of 21
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 12,958member
    saf said:
    Governments are slowing humanity down.

    They are corrupt, and evil.
    What's the alternative.  Anarchy doesn't seem workable either.
    These people have no viable alternatives. They have delusions of living in remote cabins but forget who provides things society needs like, oh, electricity and water and transportation infrastructure. 
    muthuk_vanalingamwilliamlondon
  • Reply 20 of 21
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 24,388member
    "Apple and Google should be permitted to be transparent about the legal demands they receive, particularly from foreign governments," continued Senator Wyden's letter"

    The legal part is what is important AND also what the media/politicians/corporations typically don't bother to provide much detail on. What are the laws being used to make the data requests? Is there a solid precedent for the data requests under those laws?
    "For U.S. requests of push notifications and other non-content information, Google said it requires a court order subject to judicial oversight, not just a subpoena. With such orders, federal officials must persuade a judge that the requested data is relevant and material to an ongoing criminal probe."

    According to Apple's Legal Process Guideline's they may accept the subpoena alone. 
    edited December 2023 ctt_zhronn
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