Apple, Google urged to remove app that lets Saudi men track wives

Business Insider Screenshot from the desktop version of Absher

The letter comes after a Business Insider report claimed Saudi men can use the app to specify when and where women are allowed to fly out of the country and revoke travel permission. And it's drawing criticism, especially from human rights advocacy groups.

In an interview with NPR on Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked about Absher.

On both Apple and Google's app stores, the app preview states: "Absher has been designed and developed with special consideration to security and privacy of user's data and communication". 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 with private companies, certain types of health care, and release from prison, said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The app, called Absher, was created by the National Information Center, which according to a Saudi government website is a project of the Saudi Ministry of Interior.

Neither Apple nor Google were immediately available for comment.

Developed by the government of Saudi Arabia, Absher has been around for a while, but it only started making waves in western media after an article in ThisIsInsider highlighted one of its most controversial features - allowing male "guardians" to track and restrict women's movements via their smartphones.

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The app raises awkward questions for Apple and Google, two of the biggest players in Silicon Valley, where tech firms have well-established links to Saudi Arabia.

In Saudi Arabia, women's lives are highly restricted. "It has other services that are quite generic and normal government services", she says.

Ironically, Absher has also been helpful to a few women trying to escape the repressive Saudi regime. They can then decide how many trips women can take, how long women can travel for, and whether to cancel a woman's permission to travel.

In statements sent to Business Insider, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and a women's rights activist called on Apple and Google to reconsider hosting Absher on their respective app stores. "By not saying anything", she says, "they've allowed the government to facilitate the abuse".

In an open letter to both companies, in response to the report, Mr Wyden wrote: "It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy seeks to restrict and repress Saudi women but American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government's patriarchy".

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