WANT TO restrict a woman’s travel in and out of your country? In Saudi Arabia, there’s an app for that. Apple and Google are taking heat from human rights advocates for offering a service that allows men in the kingdom to track and control the whereabouts of their wives and daughters.
Absher, which Saudi citizens can access on their Web browsers or on their smartphones through the Apple App Store or Google Play Store, is an e-government service at its core — and with some useful and legitimate functions. The app offers Saudis a one-stop shop for tasks such as paying parking tickets and renewing driver’s licenses. But Saudi men also use Absher to register their dependents as part of the kingdom’s repressive “guardianship” system, which forces women to seek permission from male relatives before they exercise a number of what should be human freedoms, including getting married, enrolling in school and traveling outside the country.
Absher enables that last repression, of the freedom to travel. The app allows men to input where women under their guardianship may go and when they may go there. Any time a woman attempts to use her passport to leave or enter the country — regardless of whether that attempt is covered under the restrictions her guardian has entered in Absher — the man receives a text message alerting him to her movements. A screenshot of the Absher app published in an investigation by Insider reveals that the interface allows men to access women’s flight logs, as well. Women seeking to flee Saudi Arabia and the regime-supported domination of their lives by their fathers, brothers and sons have said the Absher app makes escape almost impossible.
Apple and Google have both pledged to review the service, as well they should. The companies cannot end Saudi Arabia’s sexist system. They cannot even end Absher; if they removed the app from their stores, it would continue to exist on its dedicated government website. But Apple and Google can refuse to facilitate state-approved discrimination — just as every company should be reviewing its cooperation with a regime that sponsors murder and torture of journalists and peaceful critics. If Apple and Google said they would withhold the app from Saudi customers until the tracking functionality was removed, a Saudi regime eager to provide the conveniences of digital life to its citizens might comply — and if not, limiting the movement of women would at least become a bit less convenient.
Saudi Arabia is not alone. Other countries also are trying to wield the reach of firms founded on philosophies of openness and freedom for authoritarian ends. Apple and Google have a chance to send the message that there is not always an app for that, after all.