Human Rights Defenders Want Apple, Google To Ban Saudi Absher App That Tracks Women, Restricts Freedom

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Written by Ann Brown

Apple and Google are under fire for hosting a Saudi government app that helps men track women and stop women from leaving the country.

Both tech giants are refusing to comment, but human rights activities are calling for both to ban the app, which is available on Google Play and iTunes.

The app, however, is popular. Absher has been downloaded on Android devices more than 1 million times, according to the Google Play store. Apple does not disclose download figures for apps, the Week reported.

The Absher app is the Saudi government e-portal where users can access government services related to Hajj, visa, National ID, traffic violations, and health insurance among others, CNN reported. What is controversial is how its travel functions are being used to track women and their whereabouts.

The Saudi Ministry of the Interior’s “Absher” app will actually tell men where women are traveling every minute. It also has functions where men can insert travel restrictions. When women under their control move beyond set boundaries, the men will receive an SMS alert. This makes it impossible for women to actually leave the country unless they have permission.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, center, stands with Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, right, as she arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on Jan.12, 2019. (Photo: Chris Young /The Canadian Press via AP)

Male guardians can use the app to “register dependent women, grant travel privileges, and blacklist certain destinations or airports”, tech news site Android Police reported. Human rights defenders say these features enable men to trap women in abusive relationships and restrict personal freedom, the Week reported.

Absher is one of the main reasons women trying to leave Saudi Arabia are caught, according to human rights defenders.

Women in Saudi Arabia generally live under many restrictions.

“Under Saudi law, every woman has a legal ‘guardian’ who can restrict her travel to specific airports and routes, and get automated alerts when they cross borders,” Business Insider reported.

The app takes things too far, says Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Yasmine Mohammed, a critic of Saudi Arabia, told Business Insider, “There’s a definite tragedy in the world’s most technologically progressive platforms, Apple and Google, facilitating the most archaic misogyny.”

Rothna Begum, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch, told This Is Insider, “Apple and Google have rules against apps that facilitate threats and harassment. Apps like this one can facilitate human rights abuses, including discrimination against women.”

Many people are speaking out against the app.

“In evaluating whether an app should be allowed, app store providers should be considering the broader context of the purpose of the app, how it is used in practice, and whether it facilitates serious abuses,”
Begum added. “Companies should apply extra scrutiny to government-operated apps in particular.”

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden spoke out by sending a letter to Apple and Google asking them to remove the app. “Saudi men can also reportedly use Absher to receive real-time text message alerts every time these women enter or leave the country or to prevent these women from leaving the country,” Wyden wrote.

Ann Brown
Image Attribution: Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, center, stands with Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, right, as she arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on Jan.12, 2019. (Photo: Chris Young /The Canadian Press via AP), Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, center, stands with Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, right, as she arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on Jan.12, 2019. (Photo: Chris Young /The Canadian Press via AP)