The Privacy Danger Lurking in Push Notifications

To send those notifications that awaken a device and appear on its screen without a user’s interaction, apps and smartphone operating system makers must store tokens that identify the device of the intended recipient. That system has created what US senator Ron Wyden has called a “digital post office” that can be queried by law enforcement to identify users of an app or communications platform. And while it has served as a powerful tool for criminal surveillance, privacy advocates warn that it could just as easily be turned against others such as activists or those seeking an abortion in states where that’s now illegal.

In many cases, tech firms don’t even demand a court order for the data: Apple, in fact, only demanded a subpoena for the data until December. That allowed federal agents and police to obtain the identifying information without the involvement of a judge until it changed its policy to demand a judicial order.

Europe’s sweeping Digital Markets Act comes into force next week and is forcing major “gatekeeper” tech companies to open up their services. Meta-owned WhatsApp is opening its encryption to interoperate with other messaging apps; Google is giving European users more control over their data; and Apple will allow third-party app stores and the sideloading of apps for the first time.

Apple’s proposed changes have proved controversial, but ahead of the March 7 implementation date the company has reiterated its belief that sideloading apps creates more security and privacy risks. It may be easier for apps on third-party apps stores, the company says in a white paper, to contain malware or try to access people’s iPhone data. Apple says it is bringing in new checks to try to make sure apps are safe.

“These safeguards will help keep EU users’ iPhone experience as secure, privacy-protecting, and safe as possible—although not to the same degree as in the rest of the world,” the company claims. Apple also says it has heard from EU organizations, such as those in banking and defense, which say they are concerned about employees installing third-party apps on work devices.

WhatsApp scored a landmark legal win this week against the notorious mercenary hacking firm NSO Group in its long-running lawsuit against that spyware seller for allegedly breaching its app and the devices of its users. The judge in the case, Phyllis Hamilton, sided with WhatsApp in its demand that NSO Group hand over the code of its Pegasus spyware, which has long been considered one of the most sophisticated pieces of spyware to target mobile devices, sometimes through vulnerabilities in WhatsApp. The code handover—which includes versions of Pegagus from 2018 to 2020 as well as NSO’s documentation around its spyware—could help WhatsApp prove its allegations that NSO hacked 1,400 of its users, including at least 100 members of “civil society” such as journalists and human rights defenders. “Spyware companies and other malicious actors need to understand they can be caught and will not be able to ignore the law,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told the Guardian.

Here’s a solid rule of thumb: Don’t put any device in or around your home that has a camera, an internet connection, and is made by a Chinese manufacturer you’ve never heard of. In the latest reminder of that maxim, Consumer Reports this week revealed that countless brands of video-enabled doorbells have absolutely shambolic security, to the degree that for many of the devices, anyone can walk up to them outside your door, hold a button to pair their own smartphone with it, and then spy through your camera. In some cases, they can even obtain just a serial number from the device that lets them hijack it via the internet from anywhere in the world, according to the investigation. Consumer Reports found that these devices were sold under the brand names Eken and Tuck but that they appeared to share a manufacturer with no fewer than 10 other devices that all had similar designs. And while those devices might sound obscure, they’re reportedly sold through major retail platforms like Amazon, Walmart, Sears, Shein, and Temu. In some cases, Amazon had even marked the devices with their “Amazon’s Choice: Overall Pick” badge—even after Consumer Reports alerted Amazon to the security flaws.

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