Apple App Store / Screenshot of NPR
An app that enables Saudi men to track where their wives or daughters are, is available in both Apple and the Google stores in Saudi Arabia.
But the US technology giants are being blown away by human rights activists and lawmakers to carry the app.
The App, called Absher, was created by the National Information Center, which, according to a government website, is a project of the Saudi Interior Ministry.
The app's description of both stores says that with Absher "you can safely check your profile or family members, or work to work for you, and perform a wide range of e-services online. "
Yet, in Saudi Arabia, women's lives are very limited. For example, according to Human Rights Watch, women have always been authorized by a male guardian, usually a father or husband, to leave the country. Previously, paper forms were needed before traveling.
The Absher app makes the process much more convenient for Saudi men. And it draws criticism, especially with human rights conferences.
"It's really designed with the men in mind," says Rothna Begum, senior researcher on women's rights to Human Rights Watch. "Of course, it is incredibly demeaning, abusive and humiliating for the women and just offensive in many cases because you allow men absolute control over women's movements."
Earlier this week, Ron Wyden, D-Ore, injured. , sent a letter to both companies and asked them to remove the app. "Saudi men can also report using Absher to receive real-time text messages whenever these women enter or leave the country or to prevent these women from leaving the country," he wrote.
It is undeniable that @ Google and @Apple make it easier to track women and control when and how they travel. These companies should not allow these violent practices against women in Saudi Arabia. https://t.co/RDhZoTiQnP
– Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) February 11, 2019
In an interview with NPR Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked for Absher. "I haven't heard about it," he said. "But of course we'll look at it if that's the case."
NPR also reached out to Google, but the company has not responded.
Both Apple and Google have met previous controversies over apps in their stores. Both stores have policies that prohibit inappropriate content, such as the promotion of hatred, graphic violence, bullying and harassment. Companies have faced some setbacks over these policies, especially around how they can affect small businesses.
Human Rights Watch's Begum says she can see how companies might not have realized first that the app could be used to monitor women. "It has other services that are quite generic and normal public services," she says.
Apple and Google have different systems for flagging inappropriate apps. Begum says Google trusts users to notify the company of violations. Apple prescreens apps and Google rely on users to notify violations. But she says every company needs to increase the scrutiny of government-supported programs, especially when created by repressive regimes.
"They should consider the human rights implications … especially when offered by a government," she said. "When considering whether to allow an app, … providers should really assess the broader context or purpose of the app, how it is used in practice, and whether it facilitates abuse."
Ironically, Absher has also been useful to a few women who are trying to escape the repressive Saudi regime. Begum says some women have managed to change the app's settings on their male guardian's phone to let them go.
However, she says that Google and Apple have to push back against the Saudi government and either disable the app completely or disable the features that allow men to track women in their families. "Don't say anything," she says, "they have given the government the opportunity to ease the assault."
In his letter to Google and Apple, Wyden wrote: "It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy is trying to limit and suppress Saudi women, but US companies should not activate or facilitate the Saudi government's patriarchy."