Pressure is mounting on Apple and Google to introduce effective measures with regards to the Saudi mobile application, Absher, that legitimizes Saudi men’s control over the kingdom’s women. The pressure reached its peak this week, when Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, one of the top Democrats in the Senate, wrote a letter to Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, urging them to get rid of the notorious app from their platforms and app stores. Senator has called the surveillance, which the app made possible, “abhorrent”.
Absher is the kingdom’s government application available both across iOS and Android mobile devices. It provides a variety of essential government services on the go: from visas and health insurance to the national ID and Hajj. As well as that, the app has a feature, which enables men to keep track of women, that are registered as their dependents. In particular, they are able to control women’s travel overseas.
Saudi Arabia has some of the most restrictive and severe laws with regards to women and guardianship. For example, Saudi women are not allowed to travel, unless they have a permission from their guardian – male, of course. Human rights activists are convinced that Absher is yet another restrictive measure, this time tech-enabled, to repress freedom of women in the kingdom, who are already living under intense draconian rules. Sen. Wyden said that it was not surprising to learn of such control measures, given the track record of the Saudi monarchy, but that the U.S. tech companies could not assist the country’s government in doing so.
Neither Apple, nor Google commented on the case. Tim Cook said in one of the interviews that he was not aware of the app’s feature, but added that his team would investigate. Google only said that they were researching the situation.
Human rights watchdogs, in particular Amnesty International, urged both companies to investigate the problem and take steps to put an end to the sort of harassment, which they argued the app entailed. Amnesty’s spokesperson also pointed out that discrimination against women in the kingdom was very troubling and the need for a sweeping human rights reform was much needed to reverse the situation. The Saudi officials have not provided any statement in response to those claims as yet. The number of Absher’s active users in 2016 amounted to some 6 million.