UAE laws prohibit data breach, TRA says in response to Totok issue

Telecoms regulator responds to removal of free calling app from Apple App Store and Google Play Store

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The UAE telecoms regulator said the country has "strong" confidentiality laws to protect users across messaging services apps in the country and imposes "strict" standards, in response to privacy concerns surrounding the Totok free calling app.

The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) is aware of recent "allegations and concerns about the privacy of users" on voice and video-calling apps in the UAE, in particular Totok, it said on Friday, according to state-run news agency Wam.

"The TRA affirms that UAE telecommunications regulations encompass strong information security laws to prohibit any kind of data breach and unlawful interception," the regulator said. "The TRA imposes strict standards to protect users’ privacy, which are in compliance with international standards. The standards are strictly implemented across all certified telecommunications applications, including Totok, in the UAE."

The regulator issued the response after Totok, a free video and calling app, was removed from Apple app store and Google Play store over privacy concerns. Allegations suggesting the technology was being used for surveillance were vehemently denied by the company's co-founders last week, who wrote in a blog post on Tuesday that "not only do we respect privacy and ensure security, our users also have the complete control over what data they want to share at their own discretion".

"Our openness, honesty and transparency are the reasons why ToTok has such a vibrant and loyal user community globally. It is for the same reasons that we are confident Google and Apple will reinstate our app," the company said.

The ToTok app, an alternative to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Skype that are blocked in the UAE, became popular in recent weeks as it offered a cost-free alternative to paid video calling services supplied by telecom providers Etisalat and du.

The issue began when Botim, a Singaporean paid video calls provider that is licensed by the TRA and has tie-ups with UAE operators Etisalat and du, announced recently that it would begin providing its services under the ToTok brand.

The ToTok app was particularly appealing to users because it offered free calls.

The TRA said all telecom apps in the UAE apply strict privacy standards.

"The TRA ensures the compliance of all players and is working closely with international organisations to protect user privacy," the regulator said.

Regulators have traditionally taken a hard line against apps offering free calling services, with WhatsApp and Facebook video calls also blocked in the UAE.

The difficulty of monitoring such services for security purposes and the country's "regulatory framework" – in which government-owned companies are licensed to operate mobile and broadband services – have been cited in the past as reasons for banning such services.

"The UAE is committed to fostering a business environment that encourages innovators and entrepreneurs to thrive across multiple sectors," the TRA said on Friday. "The country is also adopting the latest technologies, such as 5G for mobile phones, Blockchain, Internet of Things and artificial intelligence applications."