Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have been forced by foreign governments to provide users’ data from notifications they get on their devices, according to a US lawmaker, drawing attention to a new privacy concern.
In a letter published Wednesday, US Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon asked the Justice Department to allow the technology companies to discuss the practice publicly.
The Democrat said the companies previously told him that the “practice is restricted from public release by the government.”
The senator’s letter didn’t specify which governments have sought notification data from Apple and Google, but indicated that they are foreign entities.
After the publication of the letter, Apple confirmed it does receive such requests from foreign governments.
The US federal government “prohibited us from sharing any information,” the company said.
“Now that this method has become public, we are updating our transparency reporting to detail these kinds of requests.”
Both Apple and Google have their own so-called push notification systems that provide instant alerts for everything from text messages to bank deposits to sports scores.
The companies deliver billions of notifications to users each month, and the systems are used by millions of third-party developers.
Notification data — if obtained by a government — could reveal a user’s habits, communications and whereabouts.
They’re potentially some of the most private pieces of information sent to a person’s smartphone, tablet or computer.
“As with all of the other information these companies store for or about their users, because Apple and Google deliver push notification data, they can be secretly compelled by governments to hand over this information,” Wyden wrote.
“Importantly, app developers don’t have many options; if they want their apps to reliably deliver push notifications on these platforms, they must use the service provided by Apple or Google.”
In response to the letter, Google said it has already been publishing transparency reports that share “the number and types of government requests for user data we receive, including the requests referred to by Senator Wyden.”
“We share the senator’s commitment to keeping users informed about these requests,” the company said in a statement.
Both companies said they have in-depth processes for either accepting or rejecting government requests.
And Apple now plans to break out the push notification requests it receives in its next transparency report.
“Apple is committed to transparency, and we have long been a supporter of efforts to ensure that providers are able to disclose as much information as possible to their users,” the company said.