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Apple, Google called on to remove app allowing Saudi men to track women

FILE- Saudi woman arrives to the Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque to offer Eid al-Fitr morning prayers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008.
AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

Tech giants Apple and Google are facing pressure to remove an app that allows men in Saudi Arabia to track their wives and daughters.

Joining human rights advocates, US Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, sent a letter to Apple and Google this week, urging them to prevent their app stores from being used by the Saudi government to allow the “abhorrent surveillance and control of women.”

Available to download on both the Google Play store and Apple’s app store, Absher works as an e-government portal and general services software for the Saudi Interior Ministry.

The app allows Saudis to process a number of governmental services including requesting a passport, birth certificate, or paying fines for traffic violations.

Among other functions, the app allows men in Saudi Arabia to dictate when and where adult women under their “guardianship” are allowed to travel, thus allowing their rights to travel through airports and borders to be revoked.

“Guardians” also have the option to receive a notification that alerts them when a women under their authority passes through an airport.

In Saudi Arabia, wives and unmarried women are given women a legal status similar to that of minors. All Saudi women are placed under the “guardianship” of a male, usually her father or husband, who must give her permission for many daily life functions such as international travel or certain medical procedures.

Amer HILABI (AFP/File)

Critics of the app accuse Google and Apple of being complicit in the repression of Saudi women by allowing the app to be downloaded from their platforms.

“It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy seeks to restrict and repress Saudi women, but American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy,” Wyden argued in his letter to the tech companies.

“ By permitting the app in your respective stores, your companies are making it easier for Saudi men to control their family members from the convenience of their smartphones and restrict their movement.”

“This flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend.”

A number of human rights group have also raised concern over the app, calling on the tech companies to take action.

“We call on Apple and Google to assess the risk of human rights abuses on women, which is facilitated by the App, and mitigate the harm that the App has on women,” Amnesty International told the Washington Post in a statement.

“The use of the Absher app to curtail the movement of women once again highlights the disturbing system of discrimination against women under the guardianship system and the need for genuine human rights reforms in the country, rather than just social and economic reforms.”

So far, Apple and Google have not responded to the criticism and Absher remains available to download on both platforms. 

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