ToTok App Alleged to be Spyware, Removed from Google Play

  • The Emirati government was recently alleged to be stepping up surveillance efforts targeting its citizenry.
  • Many internet users now know that their personal information could be used for malicious purposes.
  • The cyber-espionage market is growing and Israel is emerging as a major spyware vendor hub.

ToTok, a popular app on Google Play store, has been removed from the platform following a serious implicatory report published by the New York Times. It discloses that the application was a spyware tool used by the United Arab Emirates government to spy on users. The chat app had been downloaded over a million times before it was removed. It had explicit permissions to track user conversations, their location, and content stored on the phone.

ToTok, not to be confused with TikTok, is an Emirati messaging app. According to The New York Times, it is also a mass surveillance tool of the United Arab Emirates intelligence services, used to gather private information on users’ phones.

The Emirati government was recently alleged to be stepping up surveillance efforts targeting its citizenry. The administration has been accused of using zero-day exploits to target individuals that advocate against its policies, and they include human rights activists. Popular chat apps such as FaceTime and WhatsApp have been blocked for some time now within the UAE. Meanwhile, ToTok has been promoted as a free alternative that offers similar features to the banned applications.

While zero-day loopholes are effective, many only work for a limited amount of time before security agencies patch them up. This makes them less cost-effective than a seemingly legitimate app that can be used as spyware. Many applications on the Google Play store have access to the same amount of data as ToTok. The real problem, however, is how the developers intend to use this sensitive information.

Of course, since the discovery of the Cambridge Analytica Facebook scandal, there’s been increased data privacy awareness. Many internet users now know that their personal information could be used for malicious purposes.

The company behind ToTok, Breej Holding, is believed to have ties to DarkMatter, an Emirati firm that specializes in cybersecurity matters. DarkMatter has hired former CIA and NSA members and is an official state-sponsored agency. ToTok is just one among the many pawns in the modern-day cyber-espionage arms race. Major economic-powers around the world are already leveraging advanced espionage tools to spy on the general population as well as foreign adversaries.

Google Play, formerly Android Market, is a digital distribution service operated and developed by Google. It serves as the official app store for the Android operating system, allowing users to browse and download applications developed with the Android software development kit (SDK) and published through Google.

Surveillance Tech Market Growing

The surveillance tech market is snowballing, and cybersecurity companies are working hard to sate customers with new innovative exploits. Israel has emerged as a world leader leading in developing such tools. Some software companies based there have been blamed for exporting highly invasive technologies that can intercept communications on a range of devices.

Facebook recently filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group, an Israeli company that specializes in spyware development. This was after its users were targeted in an extensive espionage campaign. Victims of the attack included senior Palestinian officials. The exploit undermined WhatsApp security features to gain access to private information such as texts and videos.

Initially developed to gain insight on its aggressive neighbors and terrorists, the technology is currently being adapted for use in other parts of the world. The Saudi government is alleged to have utilized Israeli spyware in their alleged mission to eliminate dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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