Skip to main content

Popular new chat app, ToTok, revealed to be UAE spy tool: Report

Recently introduced, ToTok was downloaded millions of times from Apple and Google app stores by users throughout Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America
Emirati talks on his mobile phone at international air show in Dubai (AFP/file photo)

ToTok was billed as an easy way to chat by video or text, even in the United Arab Emirates, a country that has restricted popular messaging services like WhatsApp and Skype. Turns out, it was something more, the New York Times reported.

ToTok is actually a spying tool, according to US officials familiar with a classified intelligence assessment and an NYT investigation into the app and its developers. It is used by the government of the UAE to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who have it on their phones.

Only recently introduced, ToTok was downloaded millions of times from the Apple and Google app stores by users throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. While most users are in the Emirates, ToTok became one of the most downloaded social apps in the US last week, according to App Annie, a research firm.

ToTok is the latest escalation in a digital arms race among wealthy authoritarian governments that are pursuing more effective methods to spy on foreign adversaries, criminal and terrorist networks, journalists and increasingly on their own citizens.

MEE reported last month that apps using sophisticated surveillance technology originating in Israel are increasingly common in our digital lives. This offensive software is being sold both to nations wishing to spy on their own citizens or on rival states, as well as to private corporations hoping to gain an edge on competitors or better commercially exploit and manipulate their customers.

Gulf nations including Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Qatar have previously turned to private firms - including Israeli and American contractors - to hack both rivals and citizens. The development of ToTok, experts said, shows that these governments can cut out the intermediary to spy directly on their targets, who voluntarily, if unwittingly, hand over their information, according to the Times.

A technical analysis and the NYT investigation showed that the company behind ToTok, Breej Holding, is most likely a front company affiliated with DarkMatter, an Abu Dhabi-based cyberintelligence and hacking firm where Emirati intelligence officials, former National Security Agency employees and former Israeli military intelligence operatives work.

DarkMatter is under FBI investigation, according to former employees and law enforcement officials, for possible cybercrimes.

Spokesmen for the CIA and the Emirati government declined to comment, the Times said. Calls to a phone number for Breej Holding rang unanswered. An FBI spokeswoman said that “while the FBI does not comment on specific apps, we always want to make sure to make users aware of the potential risks and vulnerabilities that these mechanisms can pose”.