A popular messaging app in the UAE has been removed from Google Play and the App Store in response to allegations that the UAE is using the app for spying. ToTok is no longer available for download on Android and iOS mobile devices.
What is ToTok?
ToTok was introduced in 2019 as a messaging app similar to WhatsApp and other mobile messaging platforms. The app gained quick popularity and was downloaded some 5 million times by Android users. In the last week before it was removed from Google Play the app was among the most downloaded apps by Android users. Similar popularity was observed on the iOS platforms.
The app provides free messaging services, voice calls, and video calls. It also allows for conference calling between 20 people. ToTok is similar in many respects to a Chinese messaging app called YeeCall. The app was developed by Breej Holding specifically for the UAE but has also been downloaded by individuals in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America.
Upon its release ToTok was promoted by publications in the Emirates that were linked to the state. The popularity of the app in the UAE was aided by the state’s support. The UAE has taken a hard line against other messaging apps such as Skype and WhatsApp. The general impression was that ToTok was associated with the UAE government. This could have accounted for its vast popularity.
The app was made available for free to users and was listed among the top 50 free apps downloaded in many countries including Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and India. Approximately two million daily users are believed to have accessed ToTok for messaging and sharing photos.
Allegations of State Spying by the New York Times
A report published by the New York Times on December 22, 2019 leveled some disturbing accusations against ToTok. According to the article US intelligence was able to determine that the Emirati government was using the app to spy on users. Among the data alleged to have been collected was user movements, relationships, sounds, and images.
There are no known exploits in the ToTok app that would provide such access by third-parties. The developers contend that the app does not have any malware or backdoors. The Emirati intelligence agencies were able to gain access to user data through the permissions that were granted in the routine process of downloading the app. App users are often quick to grant permissions without knowing exactly what they are permitting.
The company that develops ToTok is listed as Breej Holding. This company is believed to be a front for DarkMatter. DarkMatter is a UAE intelligence company that has been investigated by authorities in the US for the commission of cybercrimes. There is also a mining farm based in the Emirates that is believed to be connected to the app. Pax AI has offices that are located in the same building as DarkMatter and the Signals Intelligence Agency that is based in the UAE.
Google And Apple Remove ToTok
Google and Apple were quick to act on the news reported by the New York Times. Both removed the ToTok app from their stores in the wake of the revelations. ToTok issued a statement on the 24th of December that essentially denied the app’s involvement with UAE state spying.
ToTok stated that “users have the complete control over what data they want to share at their own discretion.” The statement further went on the accuse the New York Times of fabricating the entire story.
At the present time it will no longer be possible for individuals to download ToTok for use on their mobile devices. There is no indication that the app will be made available for download once investigations are made into the spying allegations.
The Disturbing Takeaway from the ToTok Spying Scandal
Millions of people have been affected by the ToTok spy scandal. This includes individuals who are permanent residents of the UAE as well as those who live or work in the country on a temporary basis. Many expats use messaging apps to stay in touch with their families at home while they work abroad. It now appears that the data these people share may not be private.
The UAE and other countries in the Middle East have long been strict on the use of messaging apps for mobile devices. Many believe that the opposition to apps like Skype and WhatsApp are due to the state’s inability to control how individuals use the devices. The ToTok scandal could reveal that state intelligence agencies are looking for new ways to control messaging apps and use them for their own benefit.
Other messaging apps such as those which are developed in China might also find themselves under scrutiny in the wake of the ToTok revelations. Just use a trusted VPN, and surf the web with peace of mind.
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