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WASHINGTON – Considered an easy and safe way to communicate with friends and family via video or SMS, even in a country that restricts popular messaging services like WhatsApp and Skype.
But the ToTok service is actually a weapon of espionage, according to US officials familiar with the New York Times’ covert intelligence assessment and investigation. It is used by the United Arab Emirates government to monitor every conversation, movement, attitude, meeting, voice and photo of those installed on their phones.
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Launched a few months ago, ToTok has been downloaded millions of times from the Apple and Google app stores by users in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. Although most of its users are in the United Arab Emirates, ToTok last week became one of the most downloaded social apps in the United States, according to app rankings and research firm App Annie.
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ToTok is the latest escalation in the digital arms race among wealthy authoritarian governments, as interviews and judicial investigations with current and former US foreign officials have shown. Governments are seeking more effective and convenient ways to spy on foreign enemies, criminal and terrorist networks, journalists and critics, all of whom have ensnared people around the world.
Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have turned to private companies, including Israeli and American contractors, to hack their competitors and, increasingly, their own citizens. The development of TOT, experts say, has shown that governments can cut out intermediaries to spy directly on their targets, who may willingly or unwittingly pass on their information.
Interviews with IT security and technical analysis experts have shown that Breej Holding, the company behind ToTok, is a leading company with ties to the Abu Dhabi-based hacking and cyber intelligence firm. Israeli military intelligence is working. Under DarkMatter F.B.I. According to former employees and law enforcement officers, for possible cyber crimes. US intelligence and technical analysis has also linked ToTok to Abu Dhabi-based Pax AI, which has ties to DarkMatter.
Pax AI is based in the same building as the Emirates Signals Intelligence Agency in Abu Dhabi, which was recently founded by DarkMatter.
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United Arab Emirates One of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, the Trump administration sees it as a stronghold against Iran and a close ally against terrorism. Its ruling family lauds the country as an example of a modern, moderate Arab nation, but also uses surveillance technology to suppress internal dissent, including hacking Western journalists, freeing bank accounts for critics, and a prolonged crackdown on Arabs. human rights activists. on Facebook.
The government is blocking certain features of apps like WhatsApp and Skype, a fact that has made ToTok particularly attractive in the country. Chinese telecom giant Huawei recently promoted ToTok in advertisements.
C.I.A. press officers. and the emirate’s government declined to comment. Calls to Breej Holding’s phone number went unanswered, but Pax employees did not reply to emails or messages. FBI A spokesperson said: “And the F.B.I. By not commenting on specific applications, we always want to inform users about the possible risks and vulnerabilities that these mechanisms can cause.
The Times initially told Apple and Google when asked about ToTok’s ties to the emirate government that they would investigate. Google removed the app from the Play Store on Thursday after discovering that ToTok had violated unspecified policies. Apple removed ToTok from the App Store on Friday and is still exploring the app, a spokesperson said. ToTok users who have downloaded the app can use it until they remove it from their phones.
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It is unknown at this time when US intelligence identified ToTok as the Emirate’s intelligence tool, but a source familiar with the assessment said US officials had warned some of their allies about its threats. . It is unknown if US officials have met with their UAE counterparts about the addendum. While a Middle Eastern digital security expert declined to be named to discuss powerful hacking tools, he was told by senior Emirati officials that ToTok was, in fact, an app designed to monitor users in the UAE and beyond.
According to a forensic analysis by Patrick World, a former National Security Agency hacker and private security investigator, the development of ToTok appears to have been relatively easy. It looks like a copy of the Chinese messaging app YeeCall offers free video calls, slightly adapted for English and Arabic audiences.
ToTok is a smart tool for mass tracking, according to technical analyzes and interviews, because it works like many other Apple and Android apps that track users’ locations and connections.
From the outside, ToTok keeps track of user locations by providing accurate weather. The user searches for new contacts at any time in the application, such as Instagram Facebook friends under the pretense that this is helping him connect with his friends. You can use the microphones, cameras, calendars and other information on the users phone. Even his name is an open game on the popular Chinese app TikTok.
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So instead of paying hackers to gain access to the target phone, according to the latest price lists, a hacking tool that can remotely access Android phones costs up to $2.5 million, ToTok convinced the Emirati government of millions of users. transfer your most personal information for free.
“There’s a beauty to this approach,” said Mr. World, now a security researcher at software company Jamf. “You don’t have to hack this app to listen to people and download it to your phone. What other information do you need when uploading contacts, video chats, location?
In the intelligence-gathering operation, Mr. World said, ToTok will be Phase 1. ToTok, like the National Security Agency’s massive metadata collection program, which quietly shut down this year, will allow intelligence analysts analyze the calls and contacts of users in the search. The collection, however, is much more invasive. It is unclear whether ToTok will allow Emirates to record video or audio calls of its users.
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Every day, billions of people are willing to give up privacy for the convenience of using apps on their phones. The Times Opinion Division’s Privacy Project published a study last week showing how app developers and third parties monitor the movements of mobile phone users every minute.
Private companies have collected this information for targeted marketing. In the case of ToTok, current and former officials say developers are falling behind on digital cookies, much of the information being passed on to intelligence analysts working on behalf of the emirate.
In recent months, semi-official government publications have started touting ToTok as a free app that the Emirates have been seeking for a long time. This month, users of the Botim messaging service, which requires paid subscriptions in the United Arab Emirates, received a warning advising users to switch to ToTok, calling it a “free, fast and secure” messaging app. The message was accompanied by a link to install it.
In the comments, Emirates thanked the ToTok developers for finally bringing them a free messaging app. “Blessed are you! Your app is the best app to stay in touch with me and my family!!!” one wrote Another who wrote “Thank you” “Finally an app that works in the UAE!”
It Seemed Like A Popular Chat App. It’s Secretly A Spy Tool.
ToTok’s popularity has spread beyond the United Arab Emirates. According to the latest Google Play rankings, it is among the top 50 free apps in Saudi Arabia, Britain, India, Sweden and other countries. According to some analysts, it was especially popular in the Middle East because, at least from the outside, it had nothing to do with a large and powerful state.
DarkMatter offices in Abu Dhabi. Technical analysis and interviews show that Breej Holding, the company behind ToTok, is probably the leading company linked to DarkMatter.Credit… Jon Gambrell/Associated Press
Although this guide is a tool for the Emirati government, the exact relationship between the companies behind it is unclear. Pax is staffed by European, Asian and Emirati intelligence experts, and the company is run by Andrew Jackson, an Irish intelligence analyst who previously worked for the Pentagon and US spy agencies at Palantir in Silicon Valley.
His affiliate, DarkMatter, is actually a servant of the Emirati government. His operations hacked the government ministries of Iran, Qatar, and Turkey; FIFA executives; journalists and dissidents.
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Last month, the emirate government announced that DarkMatter would merge
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