If you live in the U.S, you probably haven’t heard of ToTok. Thanks to a condemning report by the New York Times, you won’t have the chance to find out, either — the messaging app has been removed from both the App Store and the Google Play Store. ToTok is actually a tool for spying, according to American officials familiar with classified intelligence assessment.
What kind of spying are we talking about? — According to the NYT’s report, ToTok has been shown to track every conversation, location movement, sound, and image of users who had installed the app on their phones. The permissions requested by the app are similar to those of other messaging apps — so they didn’t send up any red flags for most users. In accepting these requests, ToTok users willingly handed over every bit of their information to the Emirati government.
The exact relationship between the app’s creators, a company called Pax, and the Emirati government is still murky at best. Investigations into the company are ongoing.
A swift rise to the top of the charts — ToTok was only released a few months ago, but the app was quickly downloaded by millions of users. Most of its user base resided in countries like the United Arab Emirates, where WhatsApp and Skype have been banned. But the app had been downloaded across North America, Africa, Asia, and Europe, too. Some of the app’s success can be traced to Huawei; the Chinese tech company endorsed ToTok earlier this year.
Removal isn’t enough — ToTok’s abuse of its permissions is a reminder that more regulation is needed in this space. While the app’s removal from prominent platforms is obviously the right move, it’s not enough. Location data, in particular, is misused and leaked on a daily basis. It’s becoming increasingly clear that, unless rules about app permissions are tightened and enforced, mass invasions of privacy will only continue to worsen.