Messaging app ToTok is actually nothing more than a spy tool, as an investigation by the “New York Times” has revealed. The app is used by the United Arab Emirates government to keep track of every conversation, every move, every relationship, every appointment, every sound and every picture of those who install it on their phones.
It is a lesson on what can be done with messenger services. At first glance, they appear to be a simple and secure way to chat with friends and family with a video or text message. And that’s particularly attractive in a country like the United Arab Emirates, where American providers of such services are limited.
ToTok tracks users’ locations by providing accurate weather forecast. Every time a user opens the app, it searches for new contacts. This is done under the pretext of helping to get in touch with his friends, much like Instagram identifies Facebook friends. The app has access to users’ microphones, cameras, calendars and other phone data.
“ToTok has also become the most downloaded social apps in the United States last week”
The name is an obvious allusion to the popular Chinese app TikTok. Although advertised as “fast and secure”, ToTok does not claim end-to-end encryption like WhatsApp or Skype. The only indication that the app discloses user data is hidden in the data protection guidelines: “We can pass on your personal data to companies in the group”. ToTok is only a few months old. The app has been downloaded millions of times from the Apple and Google app stores by users from the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.
ToTok has also become the most downloaded social apps in the United States last week, the New York Times reports. ToTok reflects the recent escalation of a digital arms race between wealthy authoritarian governments. Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, Emirates and Qatar, use the help of private companies from Israel and the United States to spy on their own citizens.
Secret Service is behind companies
The company behind ToTok, Breej Holding is, according to the New York Times research, most likely a bogus company associated with DarkMatter, an Abu Dhabi-based cyber intelligence and hacking company, in which intelligence officials, former employees of National Security Agency and former military secretaries worked.
The United Arab Emirates is one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, a bulwark against Iran and a close partner in the fight against terrorism. The ruling family promotes the country as an example of a moderate Arab nation, but is also at the forefront of surveillance technology when it comes to dealing with internal critics.
The government is blocking certain features of apps like WhatsApp and Skype, which has made ToTok particularly attractive in the country. In recent months, semi-official government publications have started promoting ToTok as the free app that the country’s residents have been longing for.
The New York Times did not receive comments from the companies involved on request. As a result of the research, Apple and Google removed the app from their respective app store offers. ToTok itself only speaks of technical problems. ToTok users who have already downloaded the app can apparently continue to use it.