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UAE denies developing ToTok app as a spying tool

ToTok was downloaded millions of times from Apple and Google's app stores before it was finally pulled
ToTok was one of the most downloaded social apps in the US before it was dropped by Apple and Google's app stores (Screengrab)

The United Arab Emirates has denied reports that it developed ToTok, a free video and text messaging app, for government spying.

ToTok was downloaded millions of times from Apple and Google's app stores in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America before it was finally pulled from the shelves.

The decision to revoke the app came after The New York Times reported that ToTok allowed the UAE government to track users' every conversation, movement and other details.

In a statement issued on Saturday, the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said that Emirati laws "prohibit any kind of data breach and unlawful interception".

It continued: "The TRA reaffirms that all certified telecommunications applications in the UAE are in compliance with these standards." 

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ToTok became popular by offering free calling and messaging to millions of users in countries like the UAE, where internet calling services like Skype are blocked.

But US intelligence officials and a security researcher determined the app was being used by the UAE government for detailed surveillance.

Patrick Wardle, a security researcher who assisted the NYT in its investigation, said that ToTok appeared to be part of a "mass surveillance operation", which "likely afforded in-depth insight in a large percentage of the country's population".

ToTok appeared to trick users of iPhones and Android devices into handing over access to their location and private data, Wardle said.

It was also promoted by what appeared to be fake reviews, he said.

Last month, MEE reported that apps using sophisticated surveillance technology are increasingly common.

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.