Tooter: Yet Another Repackaged ‘Swadeshi’ App Not ‘Made in India’

Tooter turns out be just an instance of US social network Gab, a haven for neo-Nazis and other alt-right extremists.
Sushovan Sircar
Cyber
Updated:
Tooter, the new microblogging platform, modelled on the lines of Twitter, aims to offer users an app that is Indian. | (image: Aroop Mishra/TheQuint)

“We believe that India should have a Swadeshi social network,” reads Tooter’s ‘About’ section. The new microblogging platform, modelled on the lines of Twitter, aims to offer users an app that is Indian.

To establish its “Swadeshi”credentials, the words “made in India” even accompanies its logo. The app cautions users that without a true-blue homespun app, “we are just a digital colony of the American Twitter India Company, no different than what we were under the British East India Company.”

However, an app that offers to be an authentic alternative to the American platform mimics nearly every aspect of Twitter on the frontend while being built on the backend as a clone of far-right US social network Gab.com.

The app, launched in July having a current userbase of over 10,000, claims it has launched a “Swadeshi Andolan 2.0.” and asks users to join them in this movement.

Moreover, apps with specific claims of ‘swadeshi’ like Kimbho and Bolo Messenger, which positioned themselves as India’s answer to WhatsApp, were found to have serious security vulnerabilities.

Similarly, Mitron, which claimed to be a “made in India”app and India’s answer to TikTok, was found to be a repackaging of an app called TicTic made by a Pakistani company.

The founders of Mitron, however, have never admitted to the app being developed in any particular country or by any particular developer. A company spokesperson said they are not aware of these details except through media reports.

In making these assertions, the app invited an examination on its claims of

  1. “Swadeshi”, an app that is of India
  2. “made in India”
  3. “Andolan”, a movement to focus on Indian-centric social media platform.

Swadeshi Apps: A Dubious Track Record

Tooter, like several other apps before it that make specific claims about ‘Swadeshi’ - an app of India and for India - have either been found to be repackaged versions of other apps or ones with major security issues.

In 2018, Patanjali’s Kimbho surfaced as India’s ‘Swadeshi’ answer to WhatsApp. The app, which also had a conchshell as its logo, was taken off Google Playstore after security experts pointed out serious vulnerabilities compromising the privacy of user data.

The app launched again in July 2018 repackaged as “Bolo Messenger” only to contain similar security flaws. The app was found to be storing critical information like telephone number and user ID in plaintext in a shared-preference file.

Most importantly, the file also contains the plaintext token that is used to make requests to the app’s server. Through a minor manoeuvring of the API, a hacker can obtain the token of any user and impersonate her to make requests to the server.

A cursory perusal of Tooter shows that the platform mimics Twitter almost entirely in its design, user interface and experience. The app, down to its name, appears to ape a platform it seeks to be an alternative to – right from its name to the colour scheme, layout, and even design. The conchshell bears a strikingly similar outline as the Twitter bird logo.

Its name, almost identical to Twitter, means a short, sharp sound made by a horned instrument, not dissimilar in meaning to the sound made by a conchshell, its logo.

‘Made in India’ But Not Really

As for the claim of Tooter being “made in India”, the first questions is, has the app actually been “made” indigeniously in the country by Indian developers to offer an authentic alternative to Twitter?

A look at its backend revealed that, in a case of white labelling, Tooter was calling APIs of Gab, an American social media platform populated by far-right users. In other words, Tooter appears to be a clone of an already existing app.

“They are taking the Gab server and hosting another instance of Gab. That’s about it,” a security researcher told The Quint. “There’s no engineering behind this. It is essentially just them hosting a Gab instance. The cookies and session IDs are proof that they are actually just a Gab server,” he added.

Even the privacy policy and terms of service have been copy pasted from Gab as illustrated by references to US’ First Amendment protections and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

There’s precedence for this though. In 2020, shortly after the government imposed an interim ban on TikTok, a number of apps swooped in, claiming to replace the Chinese TikTok with Indian variations. One such app was Mitron.

While Mitron made headlines for being “developed” by an Indian from IIT Roorke and had over 5 million downloads in a month, a closer look had revealed otherwise.

A detailed analysis and decompiling of the app’s source code by The Quint revealed that Mitron, which has ridden high on an anti-China and anti-TikTok sentiment, has, in fact, been rebranded from an app called TicTic, developed by a Pakistan-based company QBoxus.

The source code had revealed that Agarwal had not developed the app himself, as previously claimed in various media reports, but purchased TicTic’s code and simply rebranded it. A perusal of the decompiled source codes of the two apps revealed that several strings with TicTic have been left as is.

According to a spokesperson at Mitron, “the initial template was purchased on Envato a well-known Australian marketplace for buying creative assets. The name of the developer or the country where it was developed was neither known nor relevant to the purchase.”

“Most importantly, what was bought on Envato was just the initial template but Mitron TV completely revamped codebase both at the UI side and the backend side. The app in its current form has been developed by in house team of engineers working from across India,” Mitron said in an official response on Friday, 27 November.

“Andolan”

The ‘Andolan’ or movement to deliver an experience that is Indian is vague in its description and scope. However, from the app’s description and userbase, it appears that the app also wishes to focus on issues and content that is India-centric.

Many social media users have pointed out similarities between Tooter and apps like Gab and Parler.

Gab is an English-language alt-tech social networking service known for its far-right userbase. The site has been widely described as a haven for extremists including neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the alt-right, and has attracted users and groups who have been banned from other social networks.

The fact that Tooter clones Gab’s code and calls its APIs raises questions about the “Andolan” or movement part of the app.

An indication of the leanings of the userbase on the app are the comments on CEO Nanda’s Toots (as opposed to tweets). It shows an overwhelming majority of right-wing supporters from their display pictures, bios and posts.

Posts of verified profiles such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and other celebrities like Akshay Kumar have similar comments.

Moreover, Nanda’s profile consists of posts he has reposted containing familiar right-wing vocabulary of “nationalism”, “Lutyens Delhi” being frustrated with Arnab Goswami and posts alleging that 26/11 was being attempted to be passed off as “saffron terror”.

In 2019, several right-wing Twitter users had led a protest in New Delhi against Twitter’s alleged anti right-wing bias. In February 2019, the Parliamentary Committee on IT, headed then by BJP MP Anurag Thakur (currently MoS Finance), even issued a summon to CEO Jack Dorsey.

The move to summon Dorsey followed a complaint by the Youth for Social Media Democracy, a right-leaning collective that includes Delhi BJP Spokesperson Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga.

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Published: 26 Nov 2020,09:17 PM IST

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