A company that owns an app that some allege may have been secretly used by the autocratic regime of the United Arab Emirates to spy on people may have gained an entry point into Southern Nevada, after a COVID-19 relief task force in Nevada struck a deal in May with the company — despite the company’s ties to the UAE’s intelligence services.
Both the firm, Abu Dhabi–based Group 42, and the private-sector Nevada COVID-19 Response, Relief, and Recovery Task Force said in a press release that Nevada had obtained “vital testing materials thanks to a long-term partnership with the UAE and G42.”
According to the press release, the government of the UAE donated coronavirus test kits, and G42 offered its expertise and technical capabilities, as well as help with an “innovative genomic study” at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas, the press release said.
Former CEO of MGM Resorts Jim Murren, the head of the task force, said in the release that “resources from G42 will substantially increase our ability to conduct COVID-19 testing and research to help us mitigate the effects of this virus.”
But what Murren appears not to have known is that G42 was involved in building a digital tool allegedly used by the intelligence services of the United Arab Emirates.
G42, an artificial intelligence company, is the only registered shareholder of ToTok, a chat app that was the subject of an exposé in the New York Times in December. Downloaded millions of times around the world, ToTok may have been used by the UAE’s intelligence services to collect data on people who use it, their conversations, and their images, according to the Times’ analysis of the app.
The app’s creator was listed as a company called Breej Holding, but according to the Times, it was “most likely a front company affiliated with DarkMatter, an Abu Dhabi-based cyberintelligence and hacking firm where Emirati intelligence officials, former National Security Agency employees and former Israeli military intelligence operatives work. DarkMatter is under F.B.I. investigation, according to former employees and law enforcement officials, for possible cybercrimes.”
After the New York Times investigation, both Google and Apple removed ToTok from their app stores.
Bill Marczak, a researcher at Toronto-based digital research group Citizen Lab who has written extensively about G42, said he was surprised when he first saw the news of the Las Vegas deal. “It raises a question about what data this company is getting access to,” he said.
Along with Breej Holdings and DarkMatter, G42 is part of an opaque web of companies linked to the powerful Abu Dhabi royal Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who oversees much of the country’s national security apparatus. A Reuters investigation in January 2019 found that DarkMatter recruited former NSA operatives to spy on suspected militants, other governments, and human rights activists.
G42 shares a number of staff with DarkMatter, including its CEO, Peng Xiao. The company has said previously it has no connection to DarkMatter.
On Wednesday, a representative for ToTok told BuzzFeed News, “ToTok is a private company that is led by a group of international entrepreneurs and engineers. ToTok does not spy on its users and the company has no connections to any government entity.”
On the same day, a spokesperson for G42 told BuzzFeed News, “G42 was ToTok’s first investor and has also acted as an incubator in the early days of ToTok’s development. G42 still provides the startup with counsel on various legal and accounting matters, but ultimately ToTok is an independent commercial company. ToTok’s daily operations and all strategic decisions about the company, product, and technology are managed by the ToTok executive team.”
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Murren was asked if he had heard of ToTok, and said, “No, I haven’t.”
He added that “G42 had no involvement on the [lab] project.”
He said G42 had only brokered an introduction to the government of the United Arab Emirates, which sent supplies, including coronavirus test kits. He said the company did not provide resources, technology, or expertise to the lab at the Las Vegas Convention Center, which is run by the University Medical Center.
Murren said staff at Nevada’s University Medical Center held a call with G42 to discuss using artificial intelligence in population health and genomic studies, as well as coronavirus testing.
The lab started doing tests last Thursday, Murren added.
“The genomic study was the original intent of the conversation we had with G42,” Murren said. Because G42 is an AI company, he said he hoped to discuss “health security” measures that could be taken in casinos, like thermal cameras to screen for fevers.
“I hope to have those discussions with G42 in the future, but there has been no follow-up on more sophisticated studies,” he said.