A New York Times investigation is alleging that the messaging application ToTok is being used as a surveillance tool by authorities in the United Arab Emirates.
The investigation, aided by unnamed US intelligence officials, found that the UAE is using the chat app to follow users’ conversations, track locations and determine social connections.
Most of the app’s users reside in the UAE but ToTok is also surging in popularity in the US and other parts of the world.
NYT’s investigation revealed that the official developer of ToTok, Breej Holding, is believed to be a front for DarkMatter – a UAE-based cyberintelligence firm run by Emirati, Israeli, and NSA intelligence operatives.
DarkMatter is currently under an FBI investigation over its suspected involvement in cybercrimes.
At first glance, ToTok’s features appear very similar to those of WhatsApp or Viber. But a closer examination exposes an Orwellian nightmare.
The app is designed to track the user’s location in return for an accurate weather forecast. Furthermore, it keeps a record of contacts that refreshes upon every new use and allows backdoor access to microphones, cameras, calendars, and pretty much all other phone data.
ToTok’s popularity is fuelled by the UAE’s highly restrictive policy toward encrypted messaging apps like Skype and WhatsApp. Moreover, the Emirati government used aggressive marketing strategies to grow its user base.
Just weeks after being released, ToTok climbed to Google Play’s top 50 most popular free apps list in countries like Saudi Arabia, the UK, India, and Sweden. Both Apple and Google have since pulled ToTok from their app stores.