Apple and Google criticised for hosting Saudi app that tracks women

12 Feb 2019348 Views

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Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Image: © swisshippo/Adobe.stock.com

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Rights groups are criticising Apple and Google for hosting Absher, an app that allows men in Saudi Arabia to track the movements of women.

Apple and Google have been accused aiding the enforcement of “gender apartheid” in Saudi Arabia by hosting a controversial app that allows men to track women and stop them leaving the country.

What is Absher?

In Saudi Arabia, women must obey so-called ‘guardianship laws’. This essentially means that women must obtain consent from a male guardian such as a father, son, husband, uncle or brother to attend school or apply for a job.

According to a Business Insider investigation, both Google Play and the App Store host Absher, which is a Saudi government web service that allows men to specify when and how women can cross Saudi borders. App users can also get SMS updates on when women travel, in close to real time.

The app has some innocuous functions, such as paying a parking fine, but the more sinister features have caused some groups to raise concerns.

Human rights groups are worried

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both expressed concern about the app, and Apple and Google’s role in hosting it. Human Rights Watch said: “Apps like this one can facilitate human rights abuses, including discrimination against women.”

According to human rights groups, the alert function in the app is a major factor in women trying to flee Saudi Arabia being apprehended.

Once set up, the function can tip off male guardians that the woman is trying to cross a border. Guardians can use the app to specify when and where women are allowed fly out of the country, limiting certain airport locations and destinations. The app asks for the woman’s name and passport number to track their movements.

The organisations called on Apple and Google to accept that Absher is being used to harm women in Saudi Arabia, and make changes to curb the issues stemming from its use. One group said that the Saudi government could remove the guardianship tracking element of the app, while continuing to make the rest of the functionality available as normal.

According to the Google Play Store, the app has been downloaded more than 1m times; Apple does not disclose App Store download figures.

Ellen Tannam is a writer covering all manner of business and tech subjects

editorial@siliconrepublic.com