The UAE, ToTok, and how VPNs keep Abu Dhabi in contact with the world

Totok logo with surveillance eye and UAE flag

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has long been seeking to establish itself as a modern high-tech Middle Eastern city and to position Abu Dhabi alongside Dubai as a sleek modern regional hub.

The UAE rulers have invested some of their vast oil wealth in creating an uber-modern high-tech city which draws investment and workers from around the world. Under its Vision 2021 development plan, billions of dollars have been spent on turning Abu Dhabi into a smart city and a pioneer of modern technologies.

To some extent, these policies have worked. Abu Dhabi is undoubtedly an astonishing high-tech metropolis and the 9 million ex-pats that live there now make up an astonishing 90% of the population.

But there is one big tech issue that persists in the UAE for all of them and it is a self-inflicted wound from the UAE’s rulers; VOIP technology and services such as Skype and WhatsApp continue to be blocked across the country.

VOIP censorship in the UAE

Last year saw the launch of an app called ToTok in the UAE and across the Middle East. Not to be confused with the sinister Chinese social media app Tik Tok, ToTok is a VOIP app that allows users to make video and voice calls online.

But it has proved to be a hugely controversial app. In December, the New York Times ran a report on To Tok accusing the UAE regime of using it as a tool to spy on people.

Citing evidence from intelligence sources in the USA, the report claimed that ToTok is used by the rulers of Abu Dhabi to “track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones.”

They also claimed that Breej Holdings, the company behind ToTok is, in fact, a front company for DarkMatter, an Abu Dhabi-based cyberintelligence and hacking firm which is currently being investigated by the FBI for possible cybercrimes.

While almost no-one was willing to comment on the record about ToTok, it is extremely telling that shortly after the New York Times report, the ToTok app was removed from both the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store.

After a series of unspecified updates, it has now returned to the Play store but Apple is clearly still not convinced and it remains absent from their App Store.

Is the UAE following in China’s footsteps?

Security researcher Bill Marczak from Citizen Lab told AFP that the development of ToTok by a group like DarkMatter was a fairly groundbreaking step.

“As far as I know this pretty much is the only case of a messaging platform created by an intelligence group,” he said. “It’s a very unique case in that sense because they were trying to develop this app that was designed to be used by millions of people in the world.”

He went on to suggest that the implication behind the development of ToTok was that the UAE was moving towards a “China model” of digital authoritarianism. By this, he means that the UAE rulers want to make their state a technological hub, but use their developments for censorship, surveillance, and information control rather than to improve the world.

Marczak also suggested that the controversy around ToTok was likely to hit these aspirations hard. People will “probably have a hard time trusting any sort of technology platform that comes out of the UAE” now, he added.

How to VOIP in UAE without using ToTok

It will be interesting to see what happens to ToTok now the truth behind it has been exposed.

In the UAE, mass surveillance and interception is still technically illegal and the country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority told AFP “it recently became aware of a number of concerns related to… ToTok”. Whether this awareness will translate into meaningful action remains to be seen but seems unlikely.

Despite its relatively recent launch, ToTok has already been downloaded millions of times and not just in the UAE. It has seen strong download numbers throughout the Middle East and beyond, including in the USA.

In light of the revelations about its true purpose, we would strongly advise all readers to avoid ToTok at all costs and if you have already installed it, deleted it from all your devices immediately. If possible, it would also be advisable to reset your device to factory settings to remove any lingering traces of the app.

Instead, stick to what most ex-pats in the UAE still rely on to access trustworthy VOIP apps like Skype and WhatsApp.

Use a dependable VPN such as ExpressVPN and NordVPN to get around the UAE regime’s censorship of such sites. A VPN will also encrypt all of your online activity to make it much harder for the regime to snoop on your online activity.

It is far preferable to using ToTok and giving them an open door to all your online activities.

Author: David Spencer

Cyber-security & Technology Reporter, David, monitors everything going on in the privacy world. Fighting for a less restricted internet as a member of the VPNCompare team for over 7 years.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading and politics. He is currently learning Mandarin too... slowly.

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