Hours after users in the UAE reported not being able to find or install the Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service ToTok from either Google Play or the App Store, The New York Times published an investigation suggesting that the application is nothing but a spy tool managed by the UAE government.
According to the NYT investigation which cited American officials, “the government of the United Arab Emirates try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones.”
During the last few days, there have been reports of people being unable to access the only free VoIP service allowed in the UAE, where more than 9 million expats reside and need to call their families and friends back home on a regular basis.
The UAE’s National Electronic Security Authority has always explained its ban of other VoIP applications by stating they are unlicensed, which “falls under the classification of prohibited contents as per the United Arab Emirates' Regulatory Framework.”
ToTok emerging in the summer of 2019 was the only exception to this years-long ban, which made it quite a popular application in the UAE ever since.
The NYT investigation that came hours after Google play and App Store removed ToTok, drew lots of attention from social media users across the world, with many of them expressing indifference to its findings, saying that most smartphone applications listen to conversations and monitor peoples’ interests, in efforts to sell them products and services they may be interested in.
I initially read it #TikTok , which is a #chinese app and tool to collect user information for chinese govt. This one is #ToTok, same thing for Emirati govt. Apps are either collecting data for govt, or selling data to highest bidder. If you are not paying you are the product.— Naushad UzZaman (@naushadzaman) December 22, 2019
what’s really bad is that this is completely unsurprising— Jackson Rickun (@JacksonRickun) December 22, 2019
Social media users also recalled similar incidents in which smartphone applications collected data that stirred international controversy, including that ime Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos phone was hacked by a Saudi tool earlier this year, according to investigators. They also called for tighter laws to protect users' privacy.
Wasn’t there the suspicion that Karma (the spying tool) played a role in the hacking of Jeff Bezos‘ iPhone which led to the blackmail attempt by the National Enquirer?— Isabel Stamm (@Calm_Observer) December 22, 2019
ToTok is owned by UAE and they use it to spy on you.— Eric Kingsepp (@kingsepp) December 22, 2019
TikTok is owned by China and they use it to spy on you.
FaceApp is owned by Russia and they use it to spy on you.
There's a pattern here. https://t.co/KWVL1Ly5DV
As if Facebook, Twitter, and Google don't do this already.— Kweku Tabbicca (@xhuga2) December 23, 2019
We need data privacy laws.— Zinnia (@Zinnia1111) December 23, 2019
Most apps grab all kinds of data and gives it to who knows who. We have no way of knowing who they are and what they're doing with our data.
Look at what Android / Google collects.
"Signal App" is the only one worth using for secure communications.
Even though there has been no official Emirati response, users noted that pro-government publications have promoted the use of ToTok a few months ago, in what activists believe was an attempt to have as many people download it as possible.
It's interesting how leading UAE newspapers promoted ToTok. Gulf News published a praiseworthy report by its online editor, which one thought might have been sponsored content. Presented a 'must-have' image of ToTok playing the 'expat' card. Archived copy: https://t.co/uwb6NZrTNg pic.twitter.com/0OBvWyjOll— Zaki Khalid (@misterzedpk) December 23, 2019
Ideally, US authorities should be investigating Algento, BOTIM's parent company based in California, for its patronage and marketing of ToTok. Simply shaming the UAE through reports won't suffice.— Zaki Khalid (@misterzedpk) December 23, 2019
Back in January 2019, Reuters reported that former US intelligence agents worked with UAE security officials to remotely hack into the iPhones of dissidents and world leaders using a spying tool called Karma.
Additionally, The Intercept reported last June that the UAE government started a surveillance campaign against dissidents and critics of the Emirati government in 2016, code-named Project Raven. These reports along with the recent one on ToTok raise serious questions on whether the UAE government was working on a project to track a wider audience of users, including its citizens and residents alike.
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