UAE is Accused of Using Chat App ToTok to Spy but Is It Different From All the Other Apps We Use?

Published December 23rd, 2019 - 10:13 GMT
Is the UAE Using Totok to Spy on Users Different from Every Other Smartphone App Listening to Our Conversations? (Shutterstock)
Different reports on the UAE targeting dissidents phones raise serious questions about ToTok being a new, yet domestic tool (Shutterstock)

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.

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.

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.

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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