This week saw a couple of revelations about the state of messaging services. An announcement from Facebook reversed a previous policy, with the company now requiring that new users have a Facebook account to use the service's Messenger app. Previously, new users could get access to the Messenger service without the need to create a Facebook profile. For many, a Facebook profile comes along with significant privacy concerns, and the ability to use the Messenger service without a full profile was appealing. However, as the company begins to integrate the various messaging platforms, they seem to be looking for tighter control. This will not affect current users who signed up using a phone number, however.
But Messenger is far from the only player in town creating controversy. And, in reality, it's pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of problems online. A newer app, named ToTok, has made the rounds this week after it was revealed to be a government spy app for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The name should sound familiar it is similar to the Chinese social video app TikTok, which has also been tied to government surveillance and censorship activities.
ToTok gained popularity because, unlike services like Messenger and WhatsApp, ToTok was available in countries that are likely to censor internet traffic, such as the UAE itself. The platform makes claims about a high level of security but does not mention any level of encryption. That's likely because data transferred through the service is sent through a data-mining firm that then hands the valuable data to DarkMatter, a government hacking firm located in Abi Dhabi. DarkMatter is already under US federal investigation by the FBI for spy-related activity. In addition to messages, user location data and contact lists are also tracked through DarkMatter, under the guise of providing customized recommendations.
All of these incidents bring to light the importance of end-to-end encryption, a feature that the US government is vehemently opposed to, going so far as to look for international support. The argument against the government's insistence is that, without the end-to-end encryption that the government wants to avoid, the US government could have the same power to spy on its citizens that it is complaining about other countries doing.