UAE snoops on its citizens with a mobile app and former Israeli spies

  • 24 Dec 2019

The Gulf nation has a notorious reputation for spying on its own citizens and other nationalities, and this time a mobile app was used for data breach.

A Katim secure phone is on display at the offices of the cybersecurity firm DarkMatter, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on January 30, 2018. ( Jon Gambrell / AP Archive )

The UAE government came under criticism on Tuesday as an investigative report revealed that the oil-rich kingdom was spying on its own citizens using a popular free messaging app, ToTok.

The social app was initiated by Breej Holding, which is affiliated to an Abu Dhabi-based cyberintelligence and hacking company DarkMatter.

The state of Abu Dhabi wields immense political power in the United Arab Emirates, a federal Gulf state closely linked to both the US and Israel. 

According to the New York Times investigation, the UAE, where popular messaging apps like WhatsApp and Skype have been banned to prevent opposition forces from organising dissenting voices, has been working with former Israeli intelligence officers, using ToTok to invade people's mobile data and extract private information. 

The New York Times quotes an anonymous Middle Eastern digital security expert as saying that he had heard from senior UAE officials that ToTok was essentially created for the purpose of a state-sponsored spying programme that targeted not only the UAE but also other nations. 

ToTok was launched a few months ago and it quickly “became the most downloaded social app” in the US last week, drawing Washington’s attention to the reports of data breach, according to the NYT. 

FBI and other US intelligence agencies have expressed concerns over the app's access to phones used by the US citizens. 

US intelligence has been previously been  informed by former National Security Agency staff, who were working for the UAE as contract operatives, about the UAE’s spying on American citizens, according to an extensive Reuters report.

A worker looks at his mobile phone at the newly opened Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on October 27, 2013.(AP Archive)

ToTok, which appears to be a duplication of YeeCall, a Chinese social app, adapted to English and Arabic-speaking people, grew beyond the imagination, reaching Europe, India and other Middle Eastern countries, which all love to use an app with no links to a powerful nation. 

According to recent Google Play rankings, the UAE app became one of the top 50 free messaging platforms. 

The UAE’s notorious DarkMatter, which has reportedly fed the country’s intelligence agency with crucial information about dissidents, journalists and human rights activists by hacking their phones and other communication devices, was established by Faisal al Bannai, the owner of Axiom Telecom. 

Bannai, who has been elected one of the 100 inspiring leaders in the Middle East by Arabian Business, a Dubai-based magazine, comes from a powerful family. His father was a general in the UAE military. 

DarkMatter CEO Faisal al-Bannai speaks to journalists in Abu Dhabi, UAE on Jan. 30, 2018. DarkMatter’s recruited Western intelligence analysts and is slowly stepping out of the shadows amid activist concerns about its power.(AP Archive)

Israeli connection

Bannai has been on friendly terms with Israelis. He visited the country several times, meeting top cybersecurity leads from time to time. 

Apparently, Bannai’s meetings with Israelis have borne fruit, persuading the country’s former intelligence officials, who earned “up to $1 million annually”, working for DarkMatter,  according to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, to serve his company with rich paychecks. 

With the help of Israel’s former intelligence members, Bannai’s DarkMatter not only hacked its own citizens but also dared to hack government ministries from other countries including Iran, Turkey and Qatar. 

But Bannai is not the UAE’s only connection with Israel. 

Under Tel Aviv’s legal allowance, Israeli companies sold sensitive tracking technology to the Gulf country. 

In 2016, Israel’s infamous NSO Group, which was recently accused of hacking the phones of human rights lawyers, political activists and journalists, causing a security breach in popular messaging app WhatsApp, sold its notorious technology to the UAE to hack the iPhone of the UAE’s powerful dissident and human rights activist, Ahmed Mansour.  

Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent UEA human rights activist, was consistently targeted for years by former American intelligence operatives working for the UAE.(Reuters Archive)

After the hack, Mansour was arrested and tortured. 

NSO sells most of its spyware products to the Middle East’s autocratic governments like the UAE. 

On another occasion, the AGT International, which is owned by an Israeli citizen, was reportedly asked in 2018 to develop a smart-city project to monitor the UAE citizens, which are numbered around nearly 10 million. 

The UAE does not have any official links with Israel.