What is with apps ending in Tok and spying? After Chinese-owned short-form video app has been under suspicion on spying on U.S. citizens for the Chinese government, a new messaging app called ToTok is reportedly a spying tool for the United Arab Emirates government to get information out of their citizens. While there has been no official word from the owners and developers, it looks like Apple and Google believe in the evidence presented as they have removed the app from their respective stores.
The New York Times published a report that claims the app was created by the UAE government to track the movements and activities of their citizens. The app was just launched a few months ago but has already been downloaded by millions in several territories, but most of them are from the UAE. Other popular messaging apps like WhatsApp, Skype, and Viber are partially blocked there so it’s understandable why they would eagerly try out other similar apps.
Based on classified documents from US government officials as well as their own investigation, the information shared on the app like photos, videos, messages, and even location is possibly shared with the Emirati intelligence. The owner of the app is Breej Holding, which is possibly a front for the cybersecurity firm DarkMatter. It’s also connected to data-mining firm Pax AI which actually shares office with UAE’s signals intelligence agency.
The Times says that if proven true, this is a whole new level of digital spying for “authoritarian governments”. The most common of course is to hack into their citizens’ devices but now they don’t even have to that. Just create a seemingly legitimate app that you know will be embraced by the masses and then mine the data that they share there. It’s probably the easiest intelligent gathering a government could have.
While there are no official statements from the companies involved, it looks like the digital powers that be have been sufficiently warned. Both Apple and Google have already pulled the app from the App Store and the Play Store as of today.