In Brief

Apple and Google under fire over Saudi wife-tracker app

Tech giants accused of ‘enforcing gender apartheid’ by hosting service that sends alerts when women try to leave country

Apple and Google are facing calls to disable an app that alerts men in Saudi Arabia if their wives, sisters or daughters attempt to leave the country without their permission.

The Absher app is primarily used to access government services in order to perform benign functions such as paying parking fines and renewing driving permits, The Times reports. But the technology also covers “guardianship services”, which allow men to dictate when and how female family members can cross Saudi borders - and provides real-time SMS updates when the women try to travel.

Male guardians can use the app to “register dependent women, grant travel privileges, and blacklist certain destinations or airports”, reports tech news site Android Police. Rights activists say that these features are enabling men to trap women in abusive relationships and to restrict personal freedom. 

The Saudi government app is available in both the Apple and Google Play stores, triggering accusations that the two tech giants are helping to “enforce gender apartheid”, says Business Insider.

Rothna Begum, a senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, told the site: “Apple and Google have rules against apps that facilitate threats and harassment. Apps like this one can facilitate human rights abuses, including discrimination against women.

“By not saying anything they’ve allowed the government to facilitate the abuse.”

US Senator Ron Wyden this week sent a letter to both companies asking them to remove the app. “Saudi men can also reportedly use Absher to receive real-time text message alerts every time these women enter or leave the country or to prevent these women from leaving the country,” Wyden wrote.

According to US news site NPR, some Saudi women “have managed to secretly change the settings in the app on their male guardian’s phone so that it allows them to travel”. Neverthless, rights campaigners say Google and Apple need to either disable the app entirely or disable the tracking features.

Apple and Google are yet to comment.

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