Technology is supposed to make life easier, but that's not always the case. For women living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, smartphones have made it harder to escape from abusive families and a social system that restricts their choices. Now, activists including Human Rights Watch are calling on Google and Apple to pull an app published by the Saudi government that helps men keep track of women and prevent them from leaving the country.
In Saudi Arabia, women are under the authority of a male guardian regardless of their age. That person has to grant permission for a woman to marry, open bank accounts, and travel. That last point is a problem for women who want to flee from the oppressive Kingdom, and the "Absher" app makes it even harder. This app, which you can get from Google Play and the App Store, includes some innocuous functions like paying parking fines and renewing driving permits. However, it's also a mobile portal to the country's location tracking system for women.
Using the app, guardians can register dependent women, grant travel privileges, and blacklist certain destinations or airports. Crucially, if a woman deviates from her approved travel profile, the guardian gets an alert on his phone. Saudi women attempting to leave the country have started devising ways to steal their guardian's phone or reset the Absher password to give themselves travel authorization.
Before Absher, women had to present a form to airport staff. Activists say Absher is one of the main reasons women are caught trying to leave the country for sanctuary elsewhere. They point out that both Apple and Google have policies that ban apps that facilitate abuse or harassment. It's not a stretch to say that Absher does that. As of now, Absher is available in the Play Store and iTunes. We've reached out to Google for comment and will update if we hear back.
Following the initial publicity this story received, a group of politicians reached out to Google and Apple alike, demanding that the companies pull the software from their respective app stores.
Despite this pressure, Google has communicated to at least one of the politicians involved that it has no plans to block access to Absher. According to the company, the app is not in violation of current Play Store policies.
- Business Insider