A chat app that quickly became popular in the United Arab Emirates for communicating with friends and family has been outed as a spying tool used by the government to track its users. ToTok, an Emirati messaging app that has been downloaded to millions of phones, is being used by the government of the U.A.E to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound, and image of those who install it on their phones. A New York Times investigation into the app and its developers detailed a number of problems associated its use.
ToTok, introduced only months ago, is billed as an easy and secure way to chat by video or text message with friends and family. It appears to be a copy of a Chinese messaging app, YeeCall, slightly customized for English and Arabic audiences. It tracks users’ locations for weather forecasts and hunts for new contacts any time a user opens the app, under the guise of helping connect with their friends. It also requires access to users’ microphones, cameras, calendar, and other phone data.
An American intelligence assessment and technical analysis found that much of that information is funneled to intelligence analysts working on behalf of the Emirati state. The Emirates has long blocked Apple’s FaceTime, Facebook’s WhatsApp, and other calling apps that perform in a similar way, but the government cannot control. The way the Emirati media has been playing up ToTok as an alternative for expatriates living abroad to call home to their loved ones for free raised suspicions that something unsavory was going on.
While the majority of its users are in the Emirates, ToTok has been downloaded millions of times from the Apple and Google app stores by users throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. According to recent Google Play rankings, ToTok was among the top 50 free apps in Saudi Arabia, Britain, India, and Sweden. It also became one of the most downloaded social apps in the United States last week. Google and Apple have since removed ToTok from its platforms, but users who already downloaded the app will still be able to use it until they remove it from their phones.