ToTok, a free app for text messaging, video and voice calls, has been removed from Google Play and the Apple App store. People who already downloaded the app can still use it, for now, but they can no longer send invites to new users. The app is hugely popular in the UAE, where apps such as WhatsApp, Skype, FaceTime, Google Duo and Messenger have been banned since 2017.
Secret Spy App
As reported by the Times on Saturday, according to US officials ToTok is spying on its users. US officials state that the app serves as a surveillance tool. Conversations, movements, relationships, appointments, sounds and images can be gathered and used for intelligence purposes.
So far, no official explanation has been given. Neither the CIA, FBI, the UAE Government or the app’s developer Breej Holding have commented on the issue.
Breej is a front company of the Emirati intelligence firm DarkMatter, which is currently under FBI investigation for possible cybercrimes. ToTok can also be linked to Pax AI, an Emirati data mining company that is part of the DarkMatter Group. Pax AI is located in the same building as the Emirates Signals Intelligence Agency (SIA).
Quickly Gaining Popularity
Appgrooves, a website that tracks the popularity of apps, gave ToTok a 4.6-star rating from 87,000 reviews. ToTok has been downloaded over 5 million times.
Some of the app’s features, although welcomed, have also been seen as “interesting”. These include the ability to see the local time of the other party and the network they are connected to.
The app was popular because it is free, works without a VPN and has excellent call and video quality even on 3G. After quickly taking-off in the Emirates, it also became one of the most downloaded social apps in the US.
Millions of ToTok fans, especially in the UAE, are left confused. Puzzlingly, early this month users of the Singapore-based paid service BotIM were prompted to install ToTok, calling it a “free, fast and secure” calling and messaging app.
It was called the “top-rated audio & video calling app in Gulf countries, South Asia and Africa, connecting millions of happy users”.
ToTok a Lifeline
For low income earners in the UAE, ToTok is a lifeline to families thousands of kilometers away. In total, there are around 9 million expatriates in the UAE who want to stay connected over the holiday period with friends and families back home.
No other free apps are allowed and paid services are mainly government-owned or government-affiliated. Most users rely on a VPN to be more anonymous on the internet.
“Lovin Dubai” said the ToTok app was removed from the stores because it had been facing “glitches”. In their article, there is no mention of any spying or surveillance.
Copy of Chinese App
According to a forensic analysis performed for the Times by a former national security agency hacker, ToTok appears to be a slightly customized version of the Chinese messaging app YeeCall.
Chinese telecom giant Huawei promoted ToTok in its advertisements, saying “it’s free, fast and secure. Download NOW.” China has one of the most restrictive censorship programs in the world.
The allegations against ToTok come amid rising concerns about governments secretly using apps to collect personal information. Earlier this month a class-action lawsuit was filed against TikTok, for allegedly representing a cybersecurity threat. The US Navy banned the TikTok app from government-issued devices.