Apple, Google under fire for Saudi app that lets men track women

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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.

Apple CEO Tim Cook told USA public radio NPR yesterday that he had not heard of Absher but pledged to "take a look at it". And it's drawing criticism, especially from human rights advocacy groups.

"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 to restrict their movements", Wyden wrote Monday to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Saudi Arabia has long restricted the rights of women, who for decades have needed permission from a male guardian - a father or a husband - to leave the country.

The Absher app, which is designed for a range of government services, such as renewing driving licences, makes the process of allowing or prohibiting travel a lot easier, and it can be done via a smartphone.

An investigation from website Insider exposed how it was being used by male guardians to register wives, sisters and daughters to either restrict or permit global travel.

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.

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Saudi women must have permission from a male relative to work, marry, and travel under the country's strict guardianship system, which human rights groups have criticized as abusive.

Apple and Google did not respond to Business Insider's requests for comment. According to Apple Insider, Human Rights Watch has requested the companies ask the government to remove the guardianship option and update the app. "Apps like this one can facilitate human rights abuses, including discrimination against women".

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.

Yasmine Mohammed, a former Muslim and an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia, said the companies are "facilitating the most archaic misogyny" and help the Saudi government to enforce "gender apartheid".

Both firms hosted Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman past year.

The aim of the visit was to change Westerns perspective on Saudi Arabia as a backward and conservative country dependent on oil money where women are treated as second-class people.

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