(Bloomberg) –ToTok, a popular text and video chatting app, has returned to the Google Play store following allegations that the app was actually a secret spying tool for the United Arab Emirates.
Citing a classified U.S. intelligence assessment, the New York Times reported in December that ToTok, which had been downloaded millions of times, was actually a plot by the UAE “to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones.” Shortly before story was published, ToTok was pulled from Google’s Play store and Apple’s App Store. The app remains off Apple’s App Store as the company continues to investigate, according to an Apple Inc. representative.
In a statement, Alphabet Inc.’s Google didn’t address why ToTok was again available. “We take reports of security and privacy violations seriously,” Google said. “If we find behavior that violates our policies, we take action.”
The app functions similar to other messaging apps, the difference being that the data collected by the app allegedly goes to the Emirati government, rather than a company, according to the Times. According to a technical analysis performed on ToTok by security researcher Patrick Wardle on behalf of the Times, the app doesn’t contain any secret spy code. Rather it works as any other messaging app would, gaining access to a user’s contacts, call history and messages.
Following the app’s removal, ToTok called the allegations it was a spying tool a “complete fabrication.” ToTok didn’t immediately return a request for comment regarding the app being available again on the Google Play store.
Specific functions on traditional messaging tools like WhatsApp are blocked by the Emirati government, so its citizens flocked to ToTok in the months after its release, according to the Times. “Finally a VoIP application which works in UAE. Hopefully it starts this way,” a December review on the Google Play store said. “The voice and video clarity is simply amazing!!”
Google has come under fire for hosting controversial mobile apps in the Middle East before. In early 2018, a Saudi government app called Absher was accused of tracking women’s movements in the kingdom. Google kept the app on its store. The Saudi government denied the allegations against Absher.
Some inside Google disagreed with the decision. Ross LaJeunesse, Google’s former head of international relations, told Bloomberg News last week that he spoke out internally. “Hosting this app is a clear violation of human rights,” said LaJeunesse, who left Google in 2019 and is now running for U.S. Senate in Maine. Google’s response was that the company had to “adhere to local law,” he said.
–With assistance from Mark Bergen.