Internet-based messaging apps are commonly used to communicate with friends and family. Popular apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, Messenger and others have millions of users worldwide, but there are many more users looking for suitable alternatives, either for the way apps work or to overcome certain limitations.

In one such case, a messaging app ToTok gained popularity in the UAE as other apps like WhatsApp and Skype are blocked in the country. ToTok served as a free alternative to these popular apps, attracting users not just from the UAE, but also from the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America as its fame grew.

One of the selling points for ToTok was its ease of use and promise to securely chat with others by video or message. In a matter of months, ToTok garnered millions of users from the App Store and Play Store. In fact, the app appeared in one of the most downloaded social apps in the US last week, App Annie revealed.

ToTok: A spying tool for UAE?
ToTok: A spying tool for UAE?ToTok

The fall of ToTok

The sudden rise in popularity of ToTok came crumbling down after the app was removed by Apple and Google from their respective app marketplaces. And the reason behind it is that it was allegedly spying on its users for the United Arab Emirates, according to an investigative report published by the New York Times on Sunday.

ToTok, as in the case of any messaging apps, sought permissions from its users to access the phone's microphone, camera, photos, location, calendar and contacts. But it used its access to surveil its users.

"You don't need to hack people to spy on them if you can get people to willingly download this app to their phone. By uploading contacts, video chats, location, what more intelligence do you need?" former National Security Agency hacker Patrick Wardle told the New York Times.

Since UAE blocks access to the most popular messaging apps, users are left with no other option but to rely on the apps available. This ensured ToTok's success in the UAE and other countries.

ToTok: A spying tool for UAE?
ToTok: A spying tool for UAE?ToTok

Even though ToTok is no longer available on two of the largest app stores, it can still be downloaded from the app's website and other marketplaces from Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo. But Wardle strongly advises against it.

ToTok's denial

Even though the claims against ToTok are strong, the app developers have denied the spying allegation. The developers boast the app's security, which is enabled with high-security standards as AES256, TLS/SSL, RSA and SHA256 to protect user data. As for the reason behind ToTok's unavailability on Play Store and App Store, the developers say it's a technical glitch.

"ToTok is temporarily unavailable in these two stores due to a technical issue. While the existing ToTok users continue to enjoy our service without interruption, we would like to inform our new users that we are well engaged with Google and Apple to address the issue," ToTok said in a blog post on Sunday.