Google follows Apple's lead by investigating controversial Saudi app

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

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

Joining human rights advocates, US Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from OR, sent a letter to Apple and Google this week, urging them to prevent their app stores from being used by the Saudi government to allow the "abhorrent surveillance and control of women". It contains indications that the app is used to prevent women engaging in transit, particularly that which involves leaving Saudi Arabia, if they feel they need to.

But critics say that Saudi women can not achieve equality as long as the kingdom maintains its guardianship laws. This essentially means that women must obtain consent from a male guardian such as a father, son, husband, uncle or brother to attend school or apply for a job.

Rights activists say that a feature that sends a text message when a woman tries to go through passport control is being used to keep them in abusive relationships or restrict personal freedom.

Google has now told the New York Times that it plans to do the same. He said the app "flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend".

Apple CEO Tim Cook will investigate the Saudi government app branded "abhorrent" by a US Senator following an investigation by Business Insider's sister site INSIDER.

"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", the letter read.

NPR also reached out to Google, but the company has not responded.

"There's a definite tragedy in the world's most technologically progressive platforms, Apple and Google, facilitating the most archaic misogyny".

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The free Absher app, created by the Saudi interior ministry, allows men to update or withdraw permissions for their wives and female relatives to travel internationally and get SMS updates if their passports are used, said human rights researchers.

Saudi Arabia is known for its system of male guardianship wherein "a woman's life is controlled by a man from birth until death", as per the Human Rights Watch last July 2016.

Called Absher, the app is mainly for carrying out mundane municipal activities such as paying traffic fines. However, he noted that, "obviously we'll take a look at it if [the complaints about it are accurate]".

However, Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a spokesman on the Middle East for women's rights group Equality Now, raised doubts over whether the companies would take action.

Despite Saudi Arabia's recent liberalization efforts, such as allowing women to drive as of June 24, 2018, the country still has multiple controversial laws in place.

There's really no reason either company should be hosting this app in their app stores.

Originally designed for the Ministry of Interior, the app has been in use for several years and downloaded more than a million times.

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