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Apple and Google urged to remove Saudi app that tracks women

February 18 , 2019

Photo: AFP

Human rights defenders are calling on Apple and Google to remove the Saudi government app Absher from its platforms, saying that it allows Saudi men to track women under their sponsorship.

In a letter sent to the tech giants on Monday, Senator Ron Wyden urged them to prevent their app stores from being used by the Saudi government to continue the “abhorrent surveillance and control of women.”

Absher, an app people can download on the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store works as an e-government portal and general services software for the Saudi interior ministry. It allows Saudi citizens to process a host of personal issues such as getting a passport, a birth certificate or vehicle registration.

But the app, according to human rights advocates, also facilitates Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal guardianship system.

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It remains illegal for women in Saudi Arabia to travel without permission from a so-called male guardian. Under this system of laws and practices, women in the kingdom need the approval of a “guardian” — typically a male relative — for a range of decisions and actions, including marriage, employment at private companies, certain types of health care and release from prison, said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Absher was released in 2015. One woman pursuing asylum recently indicated that she tried to flee the country without being detected by Absher and her male guardian. In order to travel, women must be granted permission through the app. Many can’t make it far because the app alerts guardians every time their dependents use their passports, according to Insider.

Now human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as Wyden, are urging Apple and Google to remove Absher from their app stores.

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The Saudi Ministry of Interior has issued a statement, rejecting the criticism. “The application represents electronic government services as an essential and direct means for the beneficiaries to access to the services at any time and from anywhere.

“The ministry strongly condemns the systematic campaign aimed at questioning the purpose of [Absher] services, which is provided on smartphones to facilitate the services to its beneficiaries.

“The Ministry of Interior at the same time confirms its rejection of the attempts to politicise the systematic use of technical instruments, which represent legitimate rights to the users, and its keenness to protect the interests of the beneficiaries of its services.”

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