Popular mobile apps use push notifications extensively to offer an “always connected” experience to their users. Social networking apps use them as a real-time channel to notify users about new private messages or new social interactions (e.g., friendship request, tagging, etc.). Despite the cryptography used to protect these communication channels, the strict temporal binding between the actions that trigger the notifications and the reception of the notification messages in the mobile device may represent a privacy issue. In this work, we present the push notification attack designed to bind the physical owners of mobile devices with their virtual identities, even if pseudonyms are used. In an online attack, an active attacker triggers a push notification and captures the notification packets that transit in the network. In an offline attack, a passive attacker correlates the social network activity of a user with the received push notification. The push notification attack bypasses the standard ways of protecting user privacy based on the network layer by operating at the application level. It requires no additional software on the victim’s mobile device.
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