U.S. Senator Ron Wyden has issued a warning, revealing that unidentified governments are allegedly surveilling smartphone users through push notifications in apps.

In a letter addressed to the Department of Justice, Wyden disclosed that foreign officials have been demanding data from tech giants Google and Apple. While details remain limited, the letter sheds light on a new avenue for governments to track smartphones.

Push notifications, commonly used in various apps, alert users to messages, news, and updates. However, what users may not realise is that these notifications often traverse servers owned by Google and Apple. This unique vantage point provides these companies with insights into the data flow from apps to users, enabling them to facilitate government surveillance on users’ app usage.

Wyden has called on the Department of Justice to reconsider or modify policies restricting public discourse on push notification spying. In response, Apple stated that Wyden’s letter provides them with an opportunity to share more information publicly about how governments monitor push notifications.

The Department of Justice is yet to comment on the matter, and Google has not responded to inquiries.

Wyden’s letter was based on a tip, and a source familiar with the situation confirmed that both foreign and U.S. government agencies have sought metadata related to push notifications from Apple and Google. The aim is to connect anonymous users of messaging apps to specific Apple or Google accounts.

The source, while not identifying the foreign governments involved, described them as democracies allied with the United States. The source did not specify how long such information has been gathered through this method.

While push notifications are often overlooked by users, they have drawn attention from technologists due to the challenge of deploying them without sending data to Google or Apple. Earlier this year, French developer David Libeau highlighted the privacy concerns associated with how apps emit data to these tech giants via push notifications, deeming them a “privacy nightmare.”

The issue underscores the importance of cybersecurity practices and policies in an increasingly interconnected digital landscape. The ongoing debate around data privacy and surveillance methods employed by governments adds another layer to the complex intersection of technology, security, and individual rights.