The Real Reason ToTok App Was Removed By Google And Apple

ToTok might sound like a TikTok rip-off or a watch that's been ripped in half. But the BBC explains that it's more of a What'sApp wannabe. The popular chat app emanates from the United Arab Emirates and has millions of downloads from around the globe. That might sound like a great way for Garfield fans to find out what happened after their favorite lasagna-loving feline shipped Nermal to Abu Dhabi. But tech giants Google and Apple removed the app from their respective Play and App stores after concerns were raised about what Abu Dhabi might be finding out about ToTok users.

They spy with your little iPhone

The United Arab Emirates has an ugly history of spying on its citizens in order to suppress dissent. As Amnesty International details, in 2011, the Emirati government began "a ruthless crackdown targeting human rights defenders, judges, lawyers, academics, students and journalists." The country has handed out lengthy prison sentences for simply criticizing the government, and some critics have ominously vanished altogether. Mass surveillance forms part and parcel of this oppression. An investigation by Reuters found that the UAE employs ex-NSA operatives as cyber "mercenaries" to spy on domestic critics and foreign governments.

It appears that ToTok may be another tool in the country's espionage arsenal. The Register reports that former NSA employee Partick Wardle helped the New York Times analyze the app. Like similar programs you might download to your phone, it accesses the microphone, location, information and the camera. However, Wardle discovered that the ToTok monitors phones around the clock, enabling it to track your location, conversations, photos, and recordings at all times. 

This finding seems particularly significant given that the UAE government requires local network providers to block VPNs, which enable users to obscure their true locations, and has banned ToTok alternatives like Skype and What'sApp. Wardle further determined that the app is "largely a re-badged version of" the YeeCall chat platform and cast doubts on the existence of ToTok's touted developer, Breej Holding Ltd, instead suggesting that it's actually a front company for an Abu Dhabi intelligence firm.