According to Wyden, the records that governments can obtain from Apple and Google include metadata that reveals which apps a person has used, when they’ve received notifications, and the phone associated with a particular Google or Apple account. The content of push notifications is not included in this information, but, for at least some apps, law enforcement could obtain information about the content of specific pushes through additional requests based on the information from the push tokens.
While Wyden’s letter says that governments outside the US have requested people’s push notification records, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has done so as well. A February 2021 search warrant application submitted by an FBI agent to the US District Court in Washington, DC, requested details for two accounts controlled by Meta (then Facebook), specifically citing a request for push notification tokens. The search warrant request related to an investigation into a person accused of taking part in the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
Meta, which owns Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram, did not immediately respond to WIRED’s request to comment. A spokesperson for Signal, the popular encrypted messaging app, also did not respond. The DOJ declined to comment.
Although Wyden is asking the DOJ to allow Apple and Google to discuss government requests for push notification records, the senator’s letter appears to have enabled them to do just that.
An Apple spokesperson tells WIRED that the company has updated its Law Enforcement Guidelines in its transparency report to reflect government requests for push notification records. The company will also begin to detail these requests in its next transparency report. Apple’s updated rules for police requests say push notification records “may be obtained with a subpoena or greater legal process.”
“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,” Apple says in a statement. “In this case, the federal government prohibited us from sharing any information and now that this method has become public we are updating our transparency reporting to detail these kinds of requests.”
Google confirmed to WIRED that it receives requests for push notification records, but the company says it already includes these types of requests in its transparency reports. The company says requests from US-based law enforcement for push notification records require court orders with judicial approval.