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Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Photo: Liewig Christian/Corbis via Getty Images

The supposedly secure messaging app ToTok is actually a spying tool being used by the government of the United Arab Emirates to mass surveil its users, the New York Times reports, citing its own internal investigation and U.S. officials familiar with a classified intelligence assessment.

Why it matters: The app has been downloaded by millions of users in the Middle East, North America, Europe, Asia and Africa, and it was one of the most downloaded social apps in the U.S. last week. Its exploitation by the Emiratis is an illustration of how authoritarian governments are increasingly finding novel and more effective ways to expand their surveillance networks and crack down on perceived enemies or dissenters.

What we know: ToTok is said to mine data from users' contacts list and tracks locations by offering a localized weather forecast, much like other Apple and Android apps.

  • It also has access to microphones, cameras and user calendars.
  • The app doesn't claim to be encrypted like WhatsApp or Signal, and its privacy policy notes that it "may share your personal data with group companies."
  • ToTok was removed from the Apple and Google Play stores after the companies were notified by the Times, but users who already downloaded the app will still be able to use it.

The big picture: The Emiratis' exploitation of the app, which is linked to a private intelligence company under investigation by the FBI, follows a pattern of authoritarian countries using digital apps to gather information.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

The dark new reality in Congress

National Guard troops keep watch at security fencing. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This is how bad things are for elected officials and others working in a post-insurrection Congress:

  • Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) said she had a panic attack while grocery shopping back home.
  • Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said police may also have to be at his constituent meetings.
  • Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told a podcaster he brought a gun to his office on Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 because he anticipated trouble with the proceedings that day.
Off the Rails

Episode 3: Descent into madness ... Trump: "Sometimes you need a little crazy"

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 3: The conspiracy goes too far. Trump's outside lawyers plot to seize voting machines and spin theories about communists, spies and computer software.

President Trump was sitting in the Oval Office one day in late November when a call came in from lawyer Sidney Powell. "Ugh, Sidney," he told the staff in the room before he picked up. "She's getting a little crazy, isn't she? She's really gotta tone it down. No one believes this stuff. It's just too much."

Convicts turn to D.C. fixers for Trump pardons

Trump confidante Matt Schlapp interviews Jared Kushner last February. Schlapp is seeking a pardon for a biotech executive. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

A flood of convicted criminals has retained lobbyists since November’s presidential election to press President Trump for pardons or commutations before he leaves office.

What we're hearing: Among them is Nickie Lum Davis, a Hawaii woman who pleaded guilty last year to abetting an illicit foreign lobbying campaign on behalf of fugitive Malaysian businessman Jho Low. Trump confidante Matt Schlapp also is seeking a pardon for a former biopharmaceutical executive convicted of fraud less than two months ago.