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WASHINGTON — It is billed as an easy and secure way to chat by video or text message with friends and family, even in a country that has restricted popular messaging services like WhatsApp and Skype.

But the service, ToTok, is actually a spying tool, according to U.S. officials familiar with a classified intelligence assessment and a New York Times investigation into the app and its developers. 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.

ToTok, introduced only months ago, was downloaded millions of times from the Apple and Google app stores by users throughout the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Africa and North America. While the majority of its users are in the Emirates, ToTok surged to become one of the most downloaded social apps in the U.S. last week, according to app rankings and App Annie, a research firm.

ToTok amounts to the latest escalation in a digital arms race among wealthy authoritarian governments, interviews with current and former U.S. foreign officials and a forensic investigation showed. The governments are pursuing more effective and convenient methods to spy on foreign adversaries, criminal and terrorist networks, journalists and critics — efforts that have ensnared people all over the world in their surveillance nets.

Persian Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Qatar previously turned to private firms — including Israeli and U.S. contractors — to hack rivals and, increasingly, their own citizens. The development of ToTok, experts said, showed that the governments can cut out the intermediary to spy directly on their targets, who voluntarily, if unwittingly, hand over their information.

A technical analysis and interviews with computer security experts showed that the firm behind ToTok, Breej Holding, is 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 FBI investigation, according to former employees and law enforcement officials, for possible cybercrimes. The U.S. intelligence assessment and the technical analysis also linked ToTok to Pax AI, an Abu Dhabi-based data mining firm that appears to be tied to DarkMatter.

Pax AI’s headquarters operate from the same Abu Dhabi building as the Emirates’ signals intelligence agency, which until recently was where DarkMatter was based.

The UAE is one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East, seen by the Trump administration as a bulwark against Iran and a close counterterrorism partner. Its ruling family promotes the country as an example of a modern, moderate Arab nation, but it has also been at the forefront of using surveillance technology to crack down on internal dissent — including hacking Western journalists, emptying the banking accounts of critics, and holding human rights activists in prolonged solitary confinement over Facebook posts.

The government blocks specific functions of apps like WhatsApp and Skype, a reality that has made ToTok particularly appealing in the country. Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, recently promoted ToTok in advertisements.

Spokesmen for the CIA and the Emirati government declined to comment. Calls to a phone number for Breej Holding rang unanswered, and Pax employees did not respond to emails and messages. An FBI spokeswoman said that “while the FBI does not comment on specific apps, we always want to make sure to make users aware of the potential risks and vulnerabilities that these mechanisms can pose.”

When The Times initially contacted Apple and Google representatives with questions about ToTok’s connection to the Emirati government, they said they would investigate. On Thursday, Google removed the app from its Play store after determining ToTok violated unspecified policies. Apple removed ToTok from its App Store on Friday and was still researching the app, a spokesman said. ToTok users who already downloaded the app will still be able to use it until they remove it from their phones.

It was unclear when U.S. intelligence services first determined that ToTok was a tool of Emirati intelligence, but one person familiar with the assessment said that U.S. officials have warned some allies about its dangers. It is not clear whether U.S. officials have confronted their counterparts in the Emirati government about the app. One digital security expert in the Middle East, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss powerful hacking tools, said that senior Emirati officials told him that ToTok was indeed an app developed to track its users in the Emirates and beyond.

ToTok appears to have been relatively easy to develop, according to a forensic analysis performed for The Times by Patrick Wardle, a former NSA hacker who works as a private security researcher. It appears to be a copy of a Chinese messaging app offering free video calls, YeeCall, slightly customized for English and Arabic audiences.

ToTok is a cleverly designed tool for mass surveillance, according to the technical analysis and interviews, in that it functions much like the myriad other Apple and Android apps that track users’ location and contacts.

On the surface, ToTok tracks users’ location by offering an accurate weather forecast. It hunts for new contacts any time a user opens the app, under the pretense that it is helping connect with their friends, much like how Instagram flags Facebook friends. It has access to users’ microphones, cameras, calendar and other phone data. Even its name is an apparent play on the popular Chinese app TikTok.

Though billed as “fast and secure,” ToTok makes no claim of end-to-end encryption, like WhatsApp, Signal or Skype. The only hint that the app discloses user data is buried in the privacy policy: “We may share your personal data with group companies.”

So instead of paying hackers to gain access to a target’s phone — the going rate is up to $2.5 million for a hacking tool that can remotely access Android phones, according to recent price lists — ToTok gave the Emirati government a way to persuade millions of users to hand over their most personal information for free.

“There is a beauty in this approach,” said Wardle, now a security researcher at Jamf, a software company. “You don’t need to hack people to spy on them if you can get people to willingly download this app to their phone. By uploading contacts, video chats, location, what more intelligence do you need?”

In an intelligence-gathering operation, Wardle said, ToTok would be Phase 1. Much like the NSA’s bulk metadata collection program — which was quietly shut down this year — ToTok allows intelligence analysts to analyze users’ calls and contacts in search of patterns, though its collection is far more invasive. It is unclear whether ToTok allows the Emiratis to record video or audio calls of its users.

Each day, billions of people freely forgo privacy for the convenience of using apps on their phones. The Privacy Project by the Times’ Opinion section published an investigation last week revealing how app makers and third parties track the minute-by-minute movements of mobile phone users.

Private companies collected that data for targeted marketing. In ToTok’s case — according to current and former officials and digital crumbs the developers left behind — much of the information is funneled to intelligence analysts working on behalf of the Emirati state.

In recent months, semiofficial state publications began promoting ToTok as the free app long sought by Emiratis. This month, users of a messaging service in the Emirates requiring paid subscriptions, Botim, received an alert telling users to switch to ToTok — which it called a “free, fast and secure” messaging app. Accompanying the message was a link to install it.

The marketing seems to have paid off.

In reviews, Emiratis expressed gratitude to ToTok’s developers for finally bringing them a free messaging app. “Blessings! Your app is the best App so far that has enable me and my family to stay connected!!!” one wrote. “Kudos,” another wrote. “Finally, an app that works in the UAE!”

ToTok’s popularity extended beyond the Emirates. According to recent Google Play rankings, it was among the top 50 free apps in Saudi Arabia, Britain, India, Sweden and other countries. Some analysts said it was particularly popular in the Middle East because — at least on the surface — it was unaffiliated with a large, powerful nation.

Though the app is a tool for the Emirati government, the exact relationship between the firms behind it is murky. Pax employees are made up of European, Asian and Emirati data scientists, and the company is run by Andrew Jackson, an Irish data scientist who previously worked at Palantir, a Silicon Valley firm that works with the Pentagon and U.S. spy agencies.

Its affiliate company, DarkMatter, is in effect an arm of the Emirati government. Its operations have included hacking government ministries in Iran, Qatar and Turkey; executives of FIFA, the world soccer organization; journalists and dissidents.

Last month, the Emirati government announced that DarkMatter would combine with two dozen other companies to create a defense conglomerate focused on repelling cyberattacks.

The FBI is investigating American employees of DarkMatter for possible cybercrimes, according to people familiar with the investigation. The inquiry intensified after former NSA hackers working for the company grew concerned about its activities and contacted the bureau. Reuters first reported the program they worked on, Project Raven.

At Pax, data scientists openly brag about their work on LinkedIn. One who listed his title as “data science team lead” said he had created a “message intelligence platform” that reads billions of messages to answer four questions: “who you are, what you do, how do you think, and what is your relationship with others.”

“With the answers to these four questions, we know everything about one person,” wrote the data scientist, Jingyan Wang.

Other Pax employees describe their experience creating tools that can search government data sets for faces from billions of video feeds and pinpoint Arabic dialects from transcribed video messages.

None mention an affiliation with ToTok.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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by L.W. ‘Sarge’ Barker, President

We lost one of our own this week. Reuben James Karnagerulz was an outstanding Executive Officer and loyal friend who dedicated the past 6 years of his life to the betterment of Gamer’s Outpost LLC.

Reuben was also a fighter whom I deeply admired for his zest for life. Whether it be a  Zombie Run, Comic Book, Cosplay and or Gaming Convention, Charitable event, or even Storm Chasing, Reuben was always at its core, never allowing health issues to prevent him from enjoying life while always placing others above himself.

For example, Reuben would often game on behalf of the sick kids of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital via the Extra Life Charity for hours on end. And he would not stop until his set monetary goal was accomplished.

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And it was his love of gaming and our overall community which brought Reuben to us in 2013 where he quickly worked his way from the rank of Editor to becoming our Executive Officer of Public Affairs and Marketing. He held this position honorably, even writing our official Mission Statement.

Reuben was the proud winner of our Annual Editor Award in 2016 and 2017 respectively. This program meant a lot to him, so to honor his memory, it has been renamed The Reuben James Karnagerulz Juarez Editor of the Year Awards.

Reuben will never be forgotten by our organization. He holds a special place with us, his “adopted gaming family”. I will miss his “night owl” wisdom when we bantered about the business from late at night into the early hours of the morning.

“Thank you” Reuben. Rest in peace my friend.

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The next generation Xbox got a big reveal last week, with a first look at the box itself and a name: Xbox Series X.

The Xbox Series X is part of the fourth generation of Xbox from Microsoft, following the original Xbox, the Xbox 360, and the Xbox One generations.

It’s quite a list of names, especially compared to the dead simplicity of Sony’s PlayStation line which starts with the PlayStation 1 in 1995 and runs through to the upcoming PlayStation 5 that’s scheduled for 2020.

But there was something particular about the way that Microsoft revealed the name of the Series X:

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Microsoft / The Game Awards

Do you see it?

“THE NEW” is tiny, followed by “XBOX” in huge letters, and then “SERIES X” in medium-sized letters below that.

Like this:

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Upon closer inspection, it appears that “Xbox” is the make and “Series X” is the model — as if the name going forward for Xbox consoles is simply “Xbox.”

It turns out there’s a good reason for that.

“The name we’re carrying forward to the next generation is simply Xbox,” a Microsoft representative told Business Insider, “And at The Game Awards you saw that name come to life through the Xbox Series X.”

Like the first Xbox generation, the next one is simply named “Xbox.”

It’s a basic rebranding, but a meaningful one that could help to simplify the Xbox line for interested consumers. It also clarifies Microsoft’s intention with its console line.

“Similar to what fans have seen with previous generations, the name ‘Xbox Series X’ allows room for additional consoles in the future,” the Microsoft rep told us.

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Currently, there are two models of Xbox One: The Xbox One X and the Xbox One S. Both came out after the original Xbox One, which launched in November 2013.

For several years, Microsoft also offered that Xbox One, which looked different from both of the consoles seen above. All three of these consoles are part of the “Xbox One” generation, which tracks with 2013 to present day. They all play the same Xbox One games, though the Xbox One X is technically far more powerful than the other two boxes.

Confused yet?

That’s exactly why Microsoft is simplifying its naming convention going forward. At the same time, of course, the statement indicates that Microsoft is already working on other versions of the next-generation Xbox — something that lines up with repeated rumors of a disc-less, streaming-focused Xbox. Microsoft isn’t saying just yet, though. “We’re excited to offer fans a glimpse at the next generation of gaming with Xbox Series X,” the rep said, “But beyond that, we have nothing further to share.”

One thing is clear: That “Series X” bit isn’t so important — it’s just Xbox from now on.

Check out the intro video for the new Xbox right here:

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(Bloomberg) — GameStop Corp., the ailing video-game retailer, plunged as much as 19% after posting a third-quarter loss that was larger than even the most dire Wall Street estimate.

The adjusted quarterly loss came to 49 cents a share, the merchant said Tuesday. The most pessimistic analyst had expected a deficit of 16 cents. Sales plummeted 26% from a year earlier to $1.44 billion, and GameStop also reduced its forecast for the year.

The shares tumbled to as low as $5.25 in their worst decline in three months. The stock had lost 48% this year as of Tuesday’s close.

The dismal results came at the start of the industry’s biggest season, with top-sellers including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Luigi’s Mansion 3 being released in the period.

The chain has struggled to sustain its revenue as more video-game players gravitate to free online titles that generate money by selling fans online merchandise while they play. The Grapevine, Texas-based retailer, which once boasted annual sales of more than $9 billion, is forecast to finish the current fiscal year with revenue of $7.17 billion, based on analysts’ estimates.

Another headwind: The current generation of game consoles is aging, leaving consumers without a reason to upgrade.

Chief Executive Officer George Sherman blamed “the unprecedented decline in new hardware sales” for hurting sales last quarter, “as the current generation of gaming consoles reach the end of their life cycle.”

Mike Hickey, an analyst at Benchmark Co., described the latest results as “awful.”

The company’s “voyage seems doomed as the digital storm intensifies.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Rob Golum in Los Angeles at rgolum@bloomberg.net;Olga Kharif in Portland at okharif@bloomberg.net;Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles at cpalmeri1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Nick Turner at nturner7@bloomberg.net, John J. Edwards III, Molly Schuetz

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Activision Blizzard, Inc. (NASDAQ: ATVI) rolled out its new “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” battle pass, along with other new Season One content, a move KeyBanc says makes sense given that the battle pass is becoming the standard gamers are used to.

Why The Battle Pass?

The battle pass model is becoming the industry standard, shifting away from the paid downloadable content model, KeyBanc analyst Tyler Parker wrote in a note.

Under the new “Call of Duty” battle pass, gamers can spend $10 for certain new content that gamers can unlock. The pass replaces the game’s “loot boxes,” which weren’t popular with gamers.

“The battle pass is a more user-friendly version of monetizing the player base and a shift in the right direction,” Parker wrote.

The new system increases engagement, he said, but also provides more opportunities for players to spend more money in the in-game store.

“Assuming the unlockable content remains attractive, we believe the battle pass presents an opportunity to retain users with stable investment over the next year,” Parker said.

KeyBanc has an Overweight rating on Activision Blizzard with a $60 price target.

On Wednesday, the stock was trading up 1.02% at $56.51.

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“If there is a Snyder cut, I hope it’s better than the one that is out now,” says cinematographer Fabian Wagner.

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by Zack Sharf via IndieWire

Zack Snyder went viral this week after posting a photo of film containers that seemingly contain the much-discussed “Justice League” Snyder cut. Snyder’s post was an attempt to end the debate over whether or not the Snyder cut exists. The director exited “Justice League” after a family tragedy and Joss Whedon was hired by Warner Bros. to oversee reshoots and postproduction. Whedon was also tasked with lightening up the film’s tone. During a recent Q&A (via ScreenRant), the original “Justice League” cinematographer Fabian Wagner weighed in on the recent Snyder cut buzz by saying, “If there is a Snyder cut, I hope it’s better than the one that is out now.”

Wagner has long been critical of Whedon’s “Justice League.” In an interview over the summer, Wagner said he cried all the way through watching Whedon’s drastically different version of the film than Snyder’s. The cinematographer said at the time that watching Whedon’s “Justice League” was so hard he couldn’t figure out how much of the original film was changed in reshoots. “A lot was changed,” he said. “It looked very different.” Now Wagner reasons that Whedon and Warner Bros. threw out 90 percent of what he shot with Snyder. Wagner was not involved in any of the “Justice League” reshoots.

“I did principal photography for Zack. We finished shooting and he started editing,” Wagner said. “We did the color grading for the trailers. So the first three trailers were all things we shot. Then they started reshoots. I wasn’t there. It was a completely different team. They reshot 55 days, I think. The movie that was in cinemas was 10 percent of what we shot. Everything else is a reshoot.”

Snyder’s photo of the “Justice League” film canisters includes a label that reveals a 214 minute runtime. That length makes “Justice League” as long as “The Irishman” at three and a half hours (though it could be so long because it’s possibly just an assembly cut). Although Snyder cut buzz continues to soar, there are no concrete plans as of now to release this version. IndieWire has reached out to Warner Bros. for further comment.

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by Zack Sharf via IndieWire

The future of the DC Extended Universe might be a question mark, but Henry Cavill says in a new interview with Men’s Health he will not being giving up the role of Superman so easily. Cavill appeared as the Man of Steel in three DCEU films directed by Zack Snyder: “Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” and “Justice League.” Cavill suggests what many fans believe when he says his movies in the DCEU got progressively worse.

According to Cavill, his Superman origin story “Man of Steel” was “a great starting point. If I were to go back, I don’t think I’d change anything.” The actor believes “Batman v Superman” is “very much a Batman movie. And I think that realm of darkness is great for a Batman movie.” As for “Justice League,” Cavill’s thoughts are blunt: “It didn’t work.” “Justice League” was overhauled by Joss Whedon after Snyder left the project due to a family tragedy.

Cavill has not played Superman since “Justice League” and Warner Bros. has not announced any plans for a new Superman movie. The studio has taken different routes with Cavill’s “Justice League” co-stars. Gal Gadot is returning as Wonder Woman in Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman 1984” (June 5, 2020), while Jason Momoa will follow last year’s one billion dollar grosser “Aquaman” with a sequel (December 16, 2022). Ezra Miller’s standalone Flash movie has gone through several different iterations but is currently on track to be directed by “It” filmmaker Andy Muschietti. Affleck exited his role as Batman, but Warner Bros. is rebooting the Caped Crusader with Robert Pattinson and director Matt Reeves for “The Batman” (June 25, 2021). Superman is the only “Justice League” character without a movie in development.

“I’m not just going to sit quietly in the dark as all this stuff is going on,” Cavill told Men’s Health of the rumor his time as Superman has ended. “I’ve not given up the role. There’s a lot I have to give for Superman yet. A lot of storytelling to do. A lot of real, true depths to the honesty of the character I want to get into. I want to reflect the comic books. That’s important to me. There’s a lot of justice to be done for Superman. The status is: You’ll see.”

Next up for Cavill is the Netflix fantasy series “The Witcher,” which debuts December 20. The streaming giant has already picked up the show for a second season.

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