Previously, there had been security concerns over a Chinese-owned social media platform called TikTok, but now the UAE-based app is in the spotlight. In recent days, The New York Times has included an item about ToTok, the free and popular Emirati messaging app for making video and voice calls.
According to the report, the ToTok app is a surveillance tool used by the United Arab Emirates intelligence services to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it.
Immediately after the news became public, Google removed the app from Google Play and Apple removed the app from the App Store.
UAE residents are now unable to download the free Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) app as it is no longer available for mobile users registered in the UAE. The removal of the app was first reported on December 21, after a Dubai-based Twitter user said he was unable to locate it in the Apple App Store.
Totok, a “spy” without an intermediary
The application provided the government of the United Arab Emirates with a direct means to spy on people. It bypassed the need for companies specializing in espionage and control agencies, as had been used by countries such as the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The app can infiltrate individuals’ accounts and obtain their information, with individuals unwittingly submitting their data directly to a government-affiliated agency.
Originally billed as an easy and secure way to chat by video or text message with friends and family, even in a country that has restricted popular messaging services like WhatsApp and Skype, ToTok is a spying tool, according to The New York Times. It cites the findings of American officials familiar with classified intelligence assessment and investigations into the app and its developers.
Introduced in 2019, the ToTok app was promoted by state-linked Emirati publications and soon found a wide user base in the Emirates. The success and popularity of the app were aided by the fact that the Emirati government blocks certain functions of other messaging services.
Millions around the world downloaded ToTok on their Android and IOS devices during recent months, especially in the Middle East, North America, Europe, Asia and Africa regions. The app had become one of the most widely downloaded social apps in the United States.
Following technical analysis and interviews with experts in digital security, the report pointed out that Breej Holding, a front company of DarkMatter, is behind this recently popularized application. It notes that UAE intelligence officials, former US National Security Agency employees, and agents of Israeli Military Intelligence are participating in the framework of this company.
DarkMatter is an arm of the Emirati government that has infiltrated ministries and government institutions in Iran, Qatar and Turkey. It has spied on FIFA executives, journalists and opponents, as Skyline has warned in several previous reports.
Of additional concern, the report mentioned an American intelligence investigation that led to a link between the ToTok and Pax AI, a data mining company based in Abu Dhabi that is located in the same building as the signal intelligence agency in Emirates Airlines.
According to findings monitored by Skyline, the application can track the location of users through their searches for weather forecasts. It also detects the addition of new contacts and occasions of calling them, under the pretext of “trying to communicate with his friends.” The application also accesses the mobile devices’ associated registration devices, just as Facebook and Instagram do.
What raises questions and concerns is that semi-official platforms have promoted the ToTok application, as it is a free application that has long been “sought by Emiratis.” Promotional messages reached users in the UAE during December this year, encouraging them to use the app. The messages indicated that it is a “free, fast, and secure application” and included a link to install the application.
Later, Google and Apple removed ToTok from their online stores, signaling the importance of following the course of the investigation of alleged espionage.