Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – ( Lily Hay Newman at Wired explores the implications of the revelation that the ToTok app is actually spyware for the United Arab Emirates. The app is fiendishly clever in the sense that there is nothing virus-like about it. It is just a communications application that wants to know who your friends are and where exactly you are at any moment, which is no more sinister in principle than Facebook (though I find the whole thing sinister). The trick is that all that data about you is being stored in a server to which the Emirates intelligence has access. It began to be popular in the UAE, then was adopted by many in the Middle East, and then spread to Europe and the US. There were millions of users.
The Google and Apple App stores have dropped the application, but if it is on your phone it will go on scooping up your data and making them available to the UAE government.
Compromised communications can be a life and death matter in the Middle East. Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, murdered by agents of the Saudi government, allegedly had his Whatsapp communications compromised by Pegasus spyware developed by an Israeli firm and deployed by Saudi Arabia. Facebook, which owns Whatsapp, has sued the Israeli company. The UAE is one of the countries whose intelligence agencies deployed Pegasus to spy on dissidents. One prominent activist is in jail as a result, and the fates of others so penetrated are unknown.
The story first broke in the New York Times. The app was likely developed by a civilian espionage firm, DarkMatter, founded by former US intel officials such as Richard Clarke at the behest of the Emirates government.
The Emirates are not as famous in the United States as Soudi Arabia, but the small Gulf country with a citizen population of a little over a million is a titan in world affairs– a role made possible by its fabulous oil riches (mainly those of one of the seven emirates, Abu Dhabi). People have often heard of glitzy Dubai, but the politics happens in Abu Dhabi. The UAE’s de facto ruler, Mohammed Bin Zayed, as emerged as one of the world’s most ambitious rulers. He backed Mohammed Bin Salman for de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. He was hand in glove with Saudi Arabia in starting the Yemen War in 2015. He has attempted to establish a maritime empire of influence throughout the Arabian Sea and the bodies of water it abuts– the Gulf, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and even the Mediterranean. Is there a civil war in Libya? The Emirates is backing Gen. Hiftar. Is there a civil war in Yemen? The Emirates is backing the southern secessionists. Did the Egyptian officer corps want to crush the 2011 Arab Spring? The Emirates helped fund the crackdown.
On June 5, 2017, the Emirates conspired with Saudi Arabia and others to invade Qatar, overturn its government, and close down the Al Jazeera satellite news station. The invasion was only forestalled by US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and by the Turkish parliament, which authorized Turkish troops to be based in Qatar. See for elements of the plan The Intercept.
The Emirates also played some sort of shadowy role in installing Donald Trump in power (Mohammed Bin Zayed actually secretly sneaked into the US after Trump’s November 2016 electoral victory, when Obama was still president, for consultations with Trump campaign officials, in one of the sketchiest acts of Middle East diplomacy in the US ever– and that is saying something). Bin Zayed also played a role in hooking Trump officials up with Russian oligarchs close to Putin.
Emirates cyber-espionage and covert operations have become a profound danger to democracy in the Middle East and even in the United States. The business model of Big Tech, of scooping up our private information and selling it to third parties, is bad enough. But that information architecture is easily penetrated and diverted to the benefit of wealthy governments who want to crush dissent and to divide Americans so as to weaken them. The US National Security Agency, which is ten times larger than the CIA, has been shown to have abused the Fourth Amendment extensively. Now its ex-agents are helping the Emirates spy on you.
US authorities are investigating Dark Matter over hacking.
The UAE has a massive influence operation in Washington, DC, and who knows how many politicians have been compromised by that.
This is a horror story and should be a wake up call. But my guess is that it will not be taken as seriously as it needs to be, by anyone concerned.