Co-creator defends suspected UAE spying app called ToTok

If the popular ToTok video and voice calling app is a spying tool of the United Arab Emirates, that’s news to its co-creator.Giacomo Ziani defended his work in an interview with The Associated Press and said he had no knowledge that people and companies linked to the project had ties to the country’s intelligence apparatus, despite a recent report in The New York Times.Millions downloaded the ToTok app during the several months it was available in the Apple and Google stores. Its surge in popularity was likely driven by the fact that it allowed users to make internet calls that have long been banned in the UAE, a U.S.-allied nation where the largest city is Dubai.The ban means Apple iPhones and computers sold in the UAE do not carry Apple’s FaceTime calling app. Calls on Skype, WhatsApp, and other similar programs do not work.

Ziani, a 32-year-old native of Venice, Italy, said ToTok won rapid approval from UAE telecommunications regulators, something long sought by established competitors that remain banned. He attributed that decision to the monopoly on the telecom market held by two companies that are majority-owned by the government. ToTok’s small market share, he said, would not cut as deeply into their business as major firms if allowed access.In this nation of 9.4 million people where all but a sliver of the population comes from another country, ToTok represented what appeared to be the first government-blessed app that would allow them to connect freely to loved ones back home. That drew everyone from laborers to diplomatic staffers to download it amid a publicity campaign by state-linked and government-supporting media in the Emirates.Ziani denied that the company collected conversation data, saying the software demanded the same access to devices as other common communication apps. Emirati authorities insisted that they “prohibit any kind of data breach and an unlawful interception.”

But this federation of seven sheikhdoms ruled by hereditary leaders already conducts mass surveillance and has been internationally criticized for targeting activists, journalists and others. Ziani repeatedly said he knew nothing about that, nor had any knowledge that a firm invested in ToTok included staff with ties to an Emirati security firm scrutinized abroad for hiring former CIA and National Security Agency staffers.