Apple and Google asked to review Saudi app that can track women

Screenshots of Saudi Arabia's Absher app as seen on iTunes. 

Screenshots of Saudi Arabia's Absher app as seen on iTunes. 

That's a pretty big deal, given that women in Saudi Arabia live under a patriarchal "guardanship" system which requires them to be a legal dependent of a man-and get that man's permission to attend school, manage their work and finances, marry, and travel overseas or in public.

With the app, men can input a woman's name and passport number.

But the Absher app has made the process much more convenient for men, and human rights advocates are concerned that the electronic tracking adds yet another level of repression for Saudi women.

Ron Wyden wrote to Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai demanding the app be "immediately removed" from the App Store and Google Play Store. "But obviously we'll take a look at it".

Cook's comments to NPR are the first time Apple has addressed the app after it declined to respond to INSIDER's repeated requests for comment.

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. The companies have faced some backlash over these policies, particularly around how they might impact small businesses. In a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch, multiple abuses against around 1.5 million migrant domestic workers (primarily from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines) in Saudi Arabia were documented, including non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workload and severe psychological, physical and sexual abuse. The agency was created by the Saudi Ministry of Interior and "provides IT solutions and services to the Ministry sectors and other government agencies".

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Apple and Google have different systems for flagging inappropriate apps.

Absher users are given an alert if any of the parameters set within the app are broken allowing a guardian to interdict.

"They should consider the human rights implications. especially when it's offered by a government", she says.

"To that end, I ask that you take immediate action to prevent your technical infrastructure, including your app stores, from being used by the Saudi government to enable the abhorrent surveillance and control of women", he continued. "Absher allows Saudi men to control the travel of Saudi women". "When they're evaluating whether an app should be allowed. providers really should consider the broader context or the objective of the app, how it's being used in practice and whether it's facilitating abuse".

Under Saudi Arabia's guardianship laws all women must have a male representative to decide if they can travel overseas. "By not saying anything", she says, "they've allowed the government to facilitate the abuse".

A United States senator is asking the chief executives of Apple and Google to immediately stop offering a Saudi e-government app that allows men in Saudi Arabia to track and control the movement of women.

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