Apple and Google are being pressed to remove an app that lets men track their wives and daughters in Saudi Arabia.
In a letter addressed to the CEOs of both tech giants, US Senator Ron Wyden requested that Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store stop promoting the Saudi e-government portal “Absher” which he said was being used to continue the “abhorrent surveillance and control of women”.
Available to download for free, Absher allows Saudi citizens and residents to access a host of services including getting a passport, a birth certificate or paying traffic violations.
The app also lets men in Saudi Arabia specify when and where to adult women under their “guardianship”, including wives and unmarried daughters, are allowed to travel.
An SMS feature sends a message to the male guardian when their wives and unmarried daughters use their passport at a border crossing or the immigration counters at an airport.
“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 the letter addressed to Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, and Google’s 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. This flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend.”
Apple does not include the number of downloads for apps, but according to the Google Play Store, Absher has been downloaded more than a million times.
The Saudi Interior Ministry, on its website, said Absher platforms for individuals and businesses have more than 11 million users.
‘Mitigate the harm that the app has on women’
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have expressed concern over Apple and Google’s continued hosting of the app.
“We call on 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,” Amnesty International said in a statement to The Washington Post on Tuesday.
“The use of the Absher app to curtail the movement of women once again highlights the disturbing system of discrimination against women under the guardianship system and the need for genuine human rights reforms in the country, rather than just social and economic reforms.”
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has been under heavy scrutiny since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi late last year.
It has also faced criticism following the high-profile case of Rahaf al-Qunun, a Saudi teenager who fled from the kingdom and was granted asylum in Canada last month.