Popular Messaging App Is UAE Spy Tool, Developed by Firm Employing ex-NSA and Israeli Intel Officers

ToTok, developed by firm that lures ex-Israeli intel officers with huge salaries, is used by UAE government to keep track of its users

An Emirati man takes a picture with a smartphone at the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum in the United Arab Emirates on October 27, 2019.
REUTERS/Christopher Pike

A messaging app downloaded by millions of users in the United Arab Emirates and abroad is actually a spying tool used by the Emirati government, which limits the use of Whatsapp and Skype, according to an investigative report published Monday.

According to the New York Times report, ToTok, which has been available for a few months and became the most downloaded social app in the United States last week, was covertly launched by DarkMatter, an Abu Dhabi-based cyber intelligence and hacking company that is thought to have lured former Israeli intelligence officers to work for it by offering enormous salaries.

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The FBI is reportedly investigating the firm for cybercrimes. 

The paper describes the move as the "latest escalation in a digital arms race among wealthy authoritarian governments," adding that "governments are pursuing more effective and convenient methods to spy on foreign adversaries, criminal and terrorist networks, journalists and critics."

At the end of last week, both Google and Apple made the app unavailable without providing explanations for the move.

Meanwhile, however, ToTok became one of the 50 most popular free apps in Saudi Arabia, the U.K., India, Sweden and other countries.

DarkMatter, a cybersecurity company formed in 2015 in Abu Dhabi, part of the United Arab Emirates, officially limits itself to cyber defense. But according to a Reuters expose published earlier this year, DarkMatter provides hacking services to the UAE intelligence agency against Western targets, journalists and human rights activists.

The company operates an office in Cyprus, which among other things employs Israeli software developers. A source in the Israeli cyber intelligence sector previously told Haaretz that the company was "taking these young people to Cyprus, buying them off with huge salaries." 

In March, The New York Times reported that in 2017 the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO suffered a wave of employee departures, all veterans of the IDF’s vaunted 8200 unit. A private investigator retained by NSO to discover what was behind the exodus found they had all gone to Cyprus. They worked at a research facility in a building owned by a company affiliated with DarkMatter, the Times said.

DarkMatter was founded and is led by Faisal Al Bannai, who also established Axiom Telecom, one of the Gulf’s biggest sellers of mobile phones. His father is a general in the UAE military. Reuters has reported that Al Bannai has visited Israel several times for business and met with Israeli cybersecurity executives. 

On at least two occasions, Israeli companies have sold tracking technology to the UAE. As far as is known, both contracts were cleared by Israel’s Defense Ministry.

In the first, it was revealed in 2016 that the Gulf country had bought technology from NSO that was used to break into the iPhone of the Emirati human rights activist and government opponent Ahmed Mansoor, who was subsequently arrested and tortured.

A year earlier, it was reported that AGT International, a company controlled by Mati Kochavi, an Israeli, had been contracted to develop a smart-city project in Abu Dhabi. The technology would enable the government to monitor citizens.

In this Oct. 29, 2019 photo, a Facebook app is shown on a smartphone in Miami.
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee