Tech giants under fire for app that tracks women in Saudi Arabia

Graphic of a woman wearing a hijab.

Over the last few days, Apple and Google Play were accused of enabling gender repression in Saudi Arabia, through an e-government app where men can track and control the movement of women.

Business Insider defined Absher as a “government web service that allows men to specify when and how women can cross Saudi borders, and to get close to real-time SMS updates when they travel.”

The app, operated by the Saudi Interior Ministry, is available in both the IOS and Android systems. Its official purpose is to offer a platform where Saudi citizens can obtain documents such as passports, birth certificates, and vehicle registrations.

The controversy began when US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote a letter urging the chief executive officers at Apple and Google to remove the app from their platforms. Tim Cook addressed the issue while being interviewed by NPR on Monday. He said, “I haven’t heard about it, but we’ll obviously take a look at it if that’s the case.”

Saudi Arabia is well known for its abysmal women’s rights record. According to a report by Musawah, a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family, Saudi Arabia follows a male guardianship system where the woman is treated as a minor, regardless of her age. She is first under the guardianship of her father and then eventually of her husband.

Absher is an example of technology working to facilitate a regressive and repressive legal system, which significantly hinders a woman’s ability to travel, work, study or even access medical care independently. According to Saudi law, it is illegal for a woman to travel unaccompanied by her male guardian.

In spite of the controversy, a quick search reveals that the app is still available in both the Apple and Google Play stores. Several Human Rights organizations have spoken against the app, urging the tech companies to act.

In a comment to the Washington Post, Amnesty International called on both Apple and Google to “assess the risk of human rights abuses on women, which is facilitated by the App, and mitigate the harm that the App has on women.” Human Rights Watch also spoke against the app.

In such a digitized world, it is undeniable that technology has been a useful tool for democratization. However, it is essential to reflect upon how governments can also use it for the subversion of democracy and the limitation of personal freedoms.

By Giovanna Bellotti Azevedo