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ToTok Is an Emirati Spying Tool

The smartphone messaging app ToTok is actually an Emirati spying tool:

But the service, ToTok, is actually a spying tool, according to American officials familiar with a classified intelligence assessment and a New York Times investigation into the app and its developers. It is used by the government of the United Arab Emirates to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones.

ToTok, introduced only months ago, was downloaded millions of times from the Apple and Google app stores by users throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. While the majority of its users are in the Emirates, ToTok surged to become one of the most downloaded social apps in the United States last week, according to app rankings and App Annie, a research firm.

Apple and Google have removed it from their app stores. If you have it on your phone, delete it now.

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How Signal Is Evading Censorship

Signal, the encrypted messaging app I prefer, is being blocked in both Egypt and the UAE. Recently, the Signal team developed a workaround: domain fronting.

Signal’s new anti-censorship feature uses a trick called “domain fronting,” Marlinspike explains. A country like Egypt, with only a few small internet service providers tightly controlled by the government, can block any direct request to a service on its blacklist. But clever services can circumvent that censorship by hiding their traffic inside of encrypted connections to a major internet service, like the content delivery networks (CDNs) that host content closer to users to speed up their online experience — or in Signal’s case, Google’s App Engine platform, designed to host apps on Google’s servers.

“Now when people in Egypt or the United Arab Emirates send a Signal message, it’ll look identical to something like a Google search,” Marlinspike says. “The idea is that using Signal will look like using Google; if you want to block Signal you’ll have to block Google.”

The trick works because Google’s App Engine allows developers to redirect traffic from Google.com to their own domain. Google’s use of TLS encryption means that contents of the traffic, including that redirect request, are hidden, and the internet service provider can see only that someone has connected to Google.com. That essentially turns Google into a proxy for Signal, bouncing its traffic and fooling the censors.

This isn’t a new trick (Tor uses it too, for example), but it does work.

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iPhone Zero-Day Used by UAE Government

Last week, Apple issued a critical security patch for the iPhone: iOS 9.3.5. The incredible story is that this patch is the result of investigative work by Citizen Lab, which uncovered a zero-day exploit being used by the UAE government against a human rights defender. The UAE spyware was provided by the Israeli cyberweapons arms manufacturer NSO Group.

This is a big deal. iOS vulnerabilities are expensive, and can sell for over $1M. That we can find one used in the wild and patch it, rendering it valueless, is a major win and puts a huge dent in the vulnerabilities market. The more we can do this, the less valuable these zero-days will be to both criminals and governments — and to criminal governments.

Citizen Lab blog post and report. New York Times article. More news articles.

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