Apple and Google Catch Heat Over Saudi App That Lets Men Track Wives and Daughters

"American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy."

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13 February 2019, 9:19pm

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This article originally appeared on VICE News US.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said Tuesday the company would “take a look” at a controversial Saudi app that allows men to track the movement of wives and daughters.

Created by the National Information Center, part of the Saudi Ministry of Interior, Absher is currently being distributed by Apple and Google — and has been downloaded more than 1 million times on Google’s platform.

The software allows male guardians to track the movements of their female dependents, preventing them from traveling abroad. Its description boasts that users “can safely browse your profile or your family members, or [laborers] working for you, and perform a wide range of eServices online.”

Among the app’s features is an alert sent to guardians whenever one of their dependents tries to use a passport.

In Saudi Arabia, every woman — regardless of age, education level or marital status — is required to have a male guardian and remains legally dependent on them for many aspects of life, including work, travel, money and marriage.

The app is designed to make men’s lives easier by streamlining a process that in the past involved paper forms, according to Human Rights Watch.

Following publication of a Business Insider report last week, human rights groups have been calling on the tech giants to remove the app.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) took up the cause Monday, calling on the companies to “immediately remove” the “abhorrent” app.

"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," Wyden said in a letter addressed to Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

"By permitting the app in your respective stores, your companies are making it easier for Saudi men to control their family members from the convenience of their smartphones and restrict their movement,” the senator added.

Apple and Google did not immediately respond to questions about the app Wednesday.

However, Cook was told about the controversy in an interview with NPR Monday. He said he hadn’t heard about it but “obviously we'll take a look at it if that's the case.”

READ: Saudi prince threatened to use “a bullet” on Khashoggi a year before he was murdered, report says

As of Wednesday morning, the app remains available on both Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store.

Multiple human rights groups and activists have joined Wyden’s call for platforms to remove the app.

“This is another example of how the Saudi Arabian government has produced tools to limit women’s freedoms,” Dana Ahmed, Saudi Arabia researcher for Amnesty International, told Business Insider.

Cover image: Women walk on Tahlia street in the Saudi capital Riyadh on September 24, 2017, during celebrations for the anniversary of the founding of the kingdom. (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)