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Saudi women take pictures with their mobile phones in the Old City of Riyadh. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/GettyImages)

‘Guardianship’ Gone Digital: Google & Apple Under Fire For Saudi Monitoring App

The so-called Absher app allows male guardians to authorize and track the travels of women under their authority

Tech giants Google and Apple have come under fire for allowing the sale of a controversial app that allows Saudi men to monitor the whereabouts of their wives and unmarried daughters.

In 2015, the National Information Center, a branch of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior, created the so-called Absher app, which translates as “yes sir” from Arabic. It then became available for purchase on Apple and Google’s online app stores in the kingdom.

A description of the software says it allows the user to “safely browse your profile or your family members, or [laborers] working for you, and perform a wide range of e-services online.”

Reportedly linked to the Saudi Interior Ministry, the app offers users—both men and women—a convenient way to fast-track government services like requesting a passport, birth certificate, vehicle registration, or paying parking tickets.

It is therefore seen as very useful, but according to critics, contains a sinister side. The software also allows males to specify how and to where women in their charge can travel, including what borders they can cross, giving them real-time updates regarding their whereabouts.

Andrew Kitson, Head of Telecoms, Media and Technology Industry Research at London-based Fitch Solutions, told The Media Line that “there are a number of dedicated device-tracker apps on the market and it seems that Absher’s tracking ability is just part of a wider set of electronic identity and authorization tools that, in theory, improve efficiency and aid productivity.”

Any connected device can be tracked if its SIM [subscriber identity module] card or WiFi/Bluetooth/other wireless connection is set to link to a particular network, he explained. Therefore, tracking in passive and active modes would not automatically raise any red flags with assessors prior to reaching the market for sale.

Nevertheless, human rights activists and a U.S. lawmaker have sounded the alarm over the software which they claim increases the plight of Saudi women whose lives are already heavily restricted.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) penned an open leader to the chief executives of Google and Apple, asking them to “immediately remove” the app from their stores.

“Saudi men can also use Absher to surveil and track women under their ‘guardianship,’ such as their wives and unmarried daughters,” he wrote. They 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.

“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 added.

The kingdom’s “guardianship laws” grant a woman’s father, brother, husband or son the legal authority to make important decisions on her behalf. The system requires women to obtain a male guardian’s approval before applying for a passport, working with private companies, obtaining certain kinds of health care, managing finances, traveling abroad or in public, and getting married.

“It will be up to the tech companies’ discretion to decide whether to remove these apps or ask for key features to be disabled on versions of the apps they sell. But the media backlash isn’t going to be significant enough to encourage Google and Apple to ban Absher. Both companies still want to work with the Saudi government, and Saudi companies and will be wary of risking current and future business opportunities,” Kitson said.

“The news does highlight the growing moral and ethical tensions being felt in the tech sector,” Kitson concluded. “There has to be a trade off between usefulness and intrusiveness, but the unanswered question remains: Who can be the most neutral arbiter in these decisions?”

If Apple and Google do succumb to pressure to remove the app, “there is nothing stopping the Saudi government from making monitoring services available as a website,” Ross J. Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering at the University of Cambridge, told The Media Line.

Anderson said the app is also being used to “exploit low-wage labor.” In Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, immigrants from Asia and Africa work in conditions of “bondage,” he said. They easily fall into debt and must rely on their “guardians” for just about everything.

“They actually hand over their passports to their guardians who control their exit from and entry into the country,” he added, explaining that app facilitates this process.

Louisa Keeler, Advocacy Associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a nonprofit organization in Washington, told The Media Line that the Absher app “has obviously garnered a lot of attention but it’s really a symptom of the larger issue which is the extremely repressive guardianship system in Saudi Arabia.”

It’s unlikely that Google and Apple will take it down, she explained. But this is an opportunity for them to lend their voices to the discussion about the guardianship system.

“Gender equality is a universal human right. It isn’t something that is unique to Western values; it is something that should be enjoyed by people around the world. Everyone should have the right to travel freely, and it is incumbent on Google and Apple to take up some position on this issue. They certainly aren’t obligated to but if they continue to advertise themselves as forward-thinking companies, it is something they should address,” Keeler concluded.

Yasmine Mohammed, an ex-Muslim, women’s rights activist and outspoken critic of the kingdom, told The Media Line that “it’s tragic that the world’s most technologically progressive platforms—Apple and Google—facilitate the most archaic misogyny.

“I don’t think these companies need to necessarily disable the entire app, as it does have many features other than the ability to monitor the travels of women under a guardian; perhaps just that feature needs to be disabled,” she added.

“However, there needs to be push-back from the world against this gender apartheid, as well as a greater conversation. Saudi Arabia ended slavery only in 1962 after pressure from the UK.

“To stop the current slavery of women, we need to apply pressure again, and the international community can stop gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia just like we stopped racial apartheid in South Africa,” Mohammed concluded.

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