High-Tech Spy Scam: Chat App Downloaded by Millions Highlights Case for Decentralized Networks
Tech giants Google and Apple have removed a popular chat app, ToTok, from their consumer platforms. Downloaded by millions, the app is now at the center of an alleged plot by the United Arab Emirates government to spy on people.
A New York Times investigation, citing American officials, unveils that the relatively new WhatsApp-lookalike is being used by UAE officials in the intelligence community as a surveillance tool. According to the report, government spies can track where people go, what they do and how they internet with data, products, services and other people as the app captures information on a range of everyday digital activities.
“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.”
NYT reports that ToTok topped the list of social apps in the United States last week as the most downloaded in its category. It also gained massive traction in Saudi Arabia, Britain, India and Sweden.
Blockchain developers who are designing decentralized systems, often with integrated cryptocurrencies, indicate that centralized systems such as Facebook – which just exposed the names, phone numbers and user IDs of 267 million users in another recent data breach – are not only susceptible to hackers who can steal data by exploiting single points of failure, but also are prone to manipulation and authoritarian regimes that leverage centralized systems to spy on people, suppress dissidents, concentrate power, control wealth and govern through fear.
Beyond building a new financial structure, blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies and decentralized systems could be the bedrock of a social revolution that aims to reinvent how people live, transact and interact; how they’re governed; and how they can maintain basic freedoms and privacy rights.
Charles Hoskinson, creator of Cardano and co-creator of Ethereum, underscores the pitfalls of companies and systems that are controlled by people, as opposed to systems that are run by code.
“If you have code, you have protocols; you have checks and balances; you have the scientific method; you get third-party, independent, non-biased, federated opinions about what reality happens to be.”
Decentralized systems, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, can transfer data, value, products and services. Their goal is to outperform traditional centralized systems by being faster, cheaper, more technologically advanced and more trustworthy. These systems can work in tandem with existing infrastructure or run entirely off-grid.
A critical attribute is their ability to resist censorship, coercion and manipulation, integrating superior checks and balances that can’t be high-jacked by rogue individuals or authoritarian governments that are trying to enrich themselves, or by corporations that are driven to cheat and pump profits.
Whistleblower and author of “Permanent Record,” Edward Snowden, who exposed mass-surveillance programs at the National Security Agency (NSA), says mobile surveillance is pervasive.
“Even at protests, your phone is emitting a beacon, one that’s invisible to the human eye. This signal is captured and collected, sometimes many times per minute, and keeps broadcasting long after the protesters head to their homes and take off their masks.”
He tells his 4.2 million followers on Twitter that corporations are equally complicit and that while turning off your location setting on an app does limit information shared by the phone’s operating system with the targeted app, that’s a drop in the bucket.
“It does nothing to prevent the actual phone companies controlling the cell towers you are dependent on from tracking & recording your movements. ATT saves tower info going back to 2008!”
“It is a federal crime to open a piece of junk mail addressed to someone else. Listening to a phone call without a court order can also be a federal crime. But an increasing number of companies are warrantlessly tracking—and recording—your every movement.
Your smartphone broadcasts your exact location thousands of times per day to dozens of different companies. Each has the power to follow individuals wherever they go, in near-real time. That’s not a glitch in the system. It is the system.
Citizens would rise up in outrage if the government mandated that every person carry a tracking device revealing their location and identity 24 hours a day. Yet in the last decade we have become, app by app, subject to just such a system.”Featured image: Shutterstock/SWEviL