How two of the biggest tech companies are secretly helping governments spy on your smartphone

How two of the biggest tech companies are secretly helping governments spy on your smartphone

Foreign governments are asking Apple and Google for push notification data on you

by Kunal Kohli and Kurt Knutsson

Two of the biggest tech companies have confirmed the government and foreign agencies can spy on you using your smartphone. And they’re likely helping.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden wrote a letter to the Justice Department last Wednesday revealing unidentified foreign governments are asking Apple and Google for push notification data on you. That data can contain your personal information.

According to a Reuters report, the U.S. government is likely spying on you too. They spoke to a source who they say is close to the subject. That unnamed source claims federal agencies have asked both companies for push notification metadata.


How Apple and Google are using push notifications to spy on you

If you own a smartphone, you have probably received a push notification. It’s the alert you receive on your phone when you get a text message, a new email, or an update from your favorite mobile game.

Those push notifications contain data. That data can tell Apple or Google who’s receiving the notification, what app is sending it, and what device the user has. Some of the metadata found in push notifications can even tell you the contents of a text message.

Foreign entities and some U.S. agencies can then request that data. When Senator Wyden asked, both companies said they were under a gag order and could not discuss information relating to push notification data.



What Apple and Google are doing to be more transparent

Both Apple and Google have taken several steps to address the major security and privacy concerns in Senator Wyden’s letter.

Apple has since updated its law enforcement guidelines and tells the public how push notification data can be used to breach your security. According to the guidelines, law enforcement must obtain a judge’s approval in order to request this information.  Also, Apple will begin to break out the requests for push notifications they have received in its next Transparency Report. 

We contacted Apple and received this statement from a company spokesperson.

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. 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.

As far as Google, the company has tools to monitor your data. First, it’s important to note that, for the most part, you would probably need a non-disclosure order to receive data about an individual or even a court order.

Google does offer a public transparency report that’s more all-encompassing. Rather than individual statistics about data requests, it gives an overarching view. We also reached out to Google, and a spokesperson had this to say,

“We were the first major company to publish a public transparency report sharing 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.”


How to keep yourself safe

While Google and Apple have tools and safeguards to help make sure your data stays private, there are steps you can take to stop your push notification data from being shared. Namely, you can turn off push notifications. Apple and Google can’t share information they don’t have.




How to turn off push notifications on iPhone

  • Go into the Settings app
  • Select Notifications
  • Select an app you receive push notifications from, for example, Google
  • Toggle off Allow Notifications

How to turn off push notifications on Android

 Settings may vary depending on your Android phone’s manufacturer 

  • Go into the Settings app
  • Select Notifications
  • Select Manage App Notifications or More 
  • Deselect apps you receive push notifications, for example Gmail 

What if I choose to allow push notifications

Some of you may still choose to allow push notifications for various reasons, such as convenience, personalization, or engagement. However, you should be aware of the potential risks of sharing your data. To protect yourself, you can take some measures, such as:

  • Reviewing the privacy policies and permissions of the apps and services you use, and opting out of any data collection or sharing that you are not comfortable with.
  • Limiting the number and frequency of push notifications you receive, and deleting or disabling any apps or services that you do not use or trust.



Additional data protection measures

While the methods mentioned above can help protect your data, they are not foolproof. If you are worried, and you should be, that Google and Apple are secretly helping governments spy on your smartphone, here are some additional steps you can take to protect your data and privacy. However, none of these methods are foolproof or guaranteed to work, and some of them may have drawbacks or limitations.

1) Use privacy tools and practices. One way to protect yourself is to use privacy tools and practices that can help you reduce or hide your digital footprint and identity. For example, you could use a virtual private network (VPN), which can mask your IP address and location. It can also anonymize your online activity and traffic. However, these tools and practices may not be enough to protect you from the data collection of Google and Apple.

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2) Use end-to-end encrypted messaging apps such as Signal or Telegram to communicate securely with your contacts. These apps do not store your messages on their servers and do not share your metadata with anyone. However, encryption does not protect the metadata of your calls, such as phone numbers, dates, times, durations, and locations, which can still be collected and analyzed. Encryption also depends on the trustworthiness and security of the app and its provider.

3) Use a password manager to create and store strong and unique passwords for your online accounts. This can prevent hackers from accessing your accounts with stolen or guessed passwords.

4) You should also enable two-factor authentication whenever possible to add an extra layer of security.

5) Review your app permissions and privacy settings regularly and limit the access that apps have to your personal data, location, camera, microphone, etc. You can also delete any apps that you do not use or trust.

6) Avoid clicking on suspicious links or attachments in emails or messages that could contain malware or phishing attempts. You should also update your software and apps regularly to fix any security vulnerabilities.

7) Have good antivirus software actively running on all your devices. This will alert you of any malware in your system, warn you against clicking on any malicious links in phishing emails, and ultimately protect you from being hacked.

Get my picks for the best 2023 antivirus protection winners for your Windows, Mac, Android & iOS devices.

Best Antivirus Protection 2024


Taking these steps can help enhance your data privacy and security in the face of potential surveillance by tech giants like Apple and Google.



How to check if your data has been compromised on the dark web

With news emerging that both Apple and Google have been cooperating with governments and foreign agencies to access sensitive user data through smartphones, it’s never been more critical to be vigilant about your online privacy. While the extent of this surveillance remains unclear, one alarming detail has become apparent: push notification data, potentially containing your personal information, may be compromised.

These developments highlight the importance of taking proactive measures to protect your digital footprint. To do so, you can go to and enter your email address into the search bar. The website will search to see what data of yours is out there and display if there were data breaches associated with your email address on various sites.  You may have even received an email from the website already saying that some of your data was stolen, and you should look into this immediately if that is the case.

Kurt’s key takeaways

The fact that two of the biggest names in tech are potentially helping the government keep track of you is startling. But when you start to consider foreign entities might be using that same information to spy on you, it gets even more frightening. It’s important to remember that there’s no right to privacy. So it’s up to you to make sure your data stays safe.

Are you less likely to use Apple and Google products? What steps are you taking to keep your data safe? Let us know what you think in the comments below.



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