The messaging app ToTok is a spying tool, according to an investigation from the New York Times. The United Arab Emirates government uses it to track the personal information of everyone who installs the app on their mobile devices. The app, which was advertised as a secure way to text or video chat, has been downloaded by millions of users all around the world, although the majority of its users are in the Emirates. In their report, the New York Times describes the app as “the latest escalation in a digital arms race among wealthy authoritarian governments.”
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The Emirates’ government is using the ToTok app to spy on:
- Terrorist and other criminal networks
- Foreign adversaries.
The New York Times’ investigation showed that Breej Holding, the company behind ToTok, is most likely a front company affiliated with the cyber intelligence and hacking firm DarkMatter, currently under FBI investigation. An assessment from American intelligence also found the app linked to data mining firm Pax AI, which also may be connected to DarkMatter.
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Last Thursday, Google removed ToTok from the Play store as it violated some of their policies. Apple removed the app on Friday, although a spokesman did not specify the particular reason. However, for users that already downloaded the app, they will still be able to use it unless they manually remove it from their phones. ToTok tracks users’ locations, conversations, contacts, and other phone data, as well as information from their microphones and cameras. Mark Mazzetti, Nicole Perlroth and Ronen Bergman wrote in the New York Times,
“It is not clear whether American officials have confronted their counterparts in the Emirati government about the app. One digital security expert in the Middle East, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss powerful hacking tools, said that senior Emirati officials told him that ToTok was indeed an app developed to track its users in the Emirates and beyond.”