It is billed as an easy and secure way to chat by video or text message with friends and family, even in a country that has restricted popular messaging services like WhatsApp and Skype.
But the service, ToTok, is actually a spying tool, according to American officials familiar with a classified intelligence assessment and a New York Times investigation into the app and its developers. It is used by the government of the United Arab Emirates to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones.
ToTok, introduced only months ago, was downloaded millions of times from the Apple and Google app stores by users throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. While the majority of its users are in the Emirates, ToTok surged to become one of the most downloaded social apps in the United States last week, according to app rankings and App Annie, a research firm.
ToTok amounts to the latest escalation in a digital arms race among wealthy authoritarian governments, interviews with current and former American foreign officials and a forensic investigation showed. The governments are pursuing more effective and convenient methods to spy on foreign adversaries, criminal and terrorist networks, journalists and critics — efforts that have ensnared people all over the world in their surveillance nets.
Persian Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Qatar previously turned to private firms — including Israeli and American contractors — to hack rivals and, increasingly, their own citizens. The development of ToTok, experts said, showed that the governments can cut out the intermediary to spy directly on their targets, who voluntarily, if unwittingly, hand over their information.
A technical analysis and interviews with computer security experts showed that the firm behind ToTok, Breej Holding, is most likely a front company affiliated with DarkMatter, an Abu Dhabi-based cyberintelligence and hacking firm where Emirati intelligence officials, former National Security Agency employees and former Israeli military intelligence operatives work. DarkMatter is under F.B.I. investigation, according to former employees and law enforcement officials, for possible cybercrimes. The American intelligence assessment and the technical analysis also linked ToTok to Pax AI, an Abu Dhabi-based data mining firm that appears to be tied to DarkMatter.
Pax AI’s headquarters operate from the same Abu Dhabi building as the Emirates’ signals intelligence agency, which until recently was where DarkMatter was based.
The U.A.E. is one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, seen by the Trump administration as a bulwark against Iran and a close counterterrorism partner. Its ruling family promotes the country as an example of a modern, moderate Arab nation, but it has also been at the forefront of using surveillance technology to crack down on internal dissent — including hacking Western journalists, emptying the banking accounts of critics, and holding human rights activists in prolonged solitary confinement over Facebook posts.
The government blocks specific functions of apps like WhatsApp and Skype, a reality that has made ToTok particularly appealing in the country. Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, recently promoted ToTok in advertisements.
Spokesmen for the C.I.A. and the Emirati government declined to comment. Calls to a phone number for Breej Holding rang unanswered, and Pax employees did not respond to emails and messages. An F.B.I. spokeswoman said that “while the F.B.I. does not comment on specific apps, we always want to make users aware of the potential risks and vulnerabilities that these mechanisms can pose.”
When The Times initially contacted Apple and Google representatives with questions about ToTok’s connection to the Emirati government, they said they would investigate. On Thursday, Google removed the app from its Play store after determining ToTok violated unspecified policies. Apple removed ToTok from its App Store on Friday and was still researching the app, a spokesman said. ToTok users who already downloaded the app will still be able to use it until they remove it from their phones.
On the surface, ToTok tracks users’ location by offering an accurate weather forecast. It hunts for new contacts any time a user opens the app, under the pretence that it is helping connect with their friends, much like how Instagram flags Facebook friends. It has access to users’ microphones, cameras, calendar and other phone data. Even its name is an apparent play on the popular Chinese app TikTok.
Private companies collected that data for targeted marketing. In ToTok’s case — according to current and former officials and digital crumbs the developers left behind — much of the information is funnelled to intelligence analysts working on behalf of the Emirati state.