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Senator calls for Google, Apple to drop Saudi app that monitors women

13 February 2019

Apple and Google are being pressed to remove an app that lets men track their wives and daughters in Saudi Arabia.

Absher, an app that 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.

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.

This is because these Saudi individuals are assigned a male "guardian" by law, who can control when and how often they can take certain routes.

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In his letter to Google and Apple, 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". He said the app "flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend".

It contains indications that the app is used to prevent women engaging in transit, particularly that which involves leaving Saudi Arabia, if they feel they need to. Google has not acknowledged repeated requests for comment. However, when informed of the app in an NPR interview on Monday, Cook said he hadn't heard of it but "obviously we'll take a look at it if that's the case".

The app has been downloaded 4.2 million times on the App Store and 5 million times on Google Play since launching in mid-2015, according to Apptopia. Business Insider has reported that these restrictions can be imposed via Absher.

Human Rights Watch's Begum says she can see how the companies might not have realized initially that the app could be used for monitoring women.

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The app is available in the Saudi version of the Google and Apple online stores.

It is the first time Apple has addressed the app after it declined to respond to INSIDER's repeated requests for comment. This is another example of how the Saudi Arabian government has produced tools to limit women's freedoms.

Yasmine Mohammed, a former Muslim and an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia, said the companies are "facilitating the most archaic misogyny" and help the Saudi government to enforce "gender apartheid". The calls for change come amid an enduring scandal over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.

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Senator calls for Google, Apple to drop Saudi app that monitors women