Google has eliminated the messaging app ToTok for the second time amid claims that it's used for spying by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government for mass surveillance.
The app was previously pulled from Apple's App Store and the Google Play Store in December before The New York Times wrote a report about it. Google silently reuploaded the app in January, but it did not explain why the application was let back in. But the app has remained unavailable on the App Store.
ToTok tracks everything?
ToTok no longer appears on the Play Store as of Friday when searching - though there are several clones - or visiting the listing directly. The Times, citing a classified intelligence assessment by American officials last year, investigated the close ties between ToTok's developers and the UAE's intelligence agency.
According to 9To5Google, ToTok was allegedly used by the country to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound, and photographs of those who installed it on their phones.
The app that works like Signal or Telegram, according to country officials familiar with the categorized intelligence assessment, has been downloaded millions of times on Android and iOS devices worldwide.
One digital security expert in the Middle East, speaking to 9To5Google on the condition of anonymity to discuss powerful hacking tools, noted senior Emirati officials remark that ToTok was indeed an app developed to track its users.
According to app records and studies company App Annie, ToTok grew to be one of the most downloaded social apps in the United States last week.
Research by NYT determined that the organization behind ToTok is referred to as Breej Holding that is a front organization affiliated with DarkMatter, an Abu Dhabi-based cyberintelligence and hacking company.
DarkMatter is already under FBI research for possible cybercrimes.
Earlier, the probe also connected ToTok to Pax AI, an Abu Dhabi-primarily based facts mining organization that looks to be tied to DarkMatter.
Google takes safety, security violations seriously
Google said it remains committed to flushing out thousands of malicious apps from the Play Store. "We take reviews of safety and security violations seriously," Google told The Verge. The tech giant added it would take action if it finds behavior that violates its policies.
ToTok's return to the Play Store shows it wasn't getting used as an undercover agent tool, or that the latest update removed the offending code - the newest model of the Android app was on Jan. 4, long after it was pulled on December 19, 2019.
ToTok denied the "vicious rumors" in a statement published in December, saying that "not only do we respect privacy and ensure security, our users also have the complete control over what data they want to share at their discretion."