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(Credit: Lance Whitney)

Apple and Google have been hit by complaints over their hosting of an app from the Saudi government that critics say violates the human rights of women in the region.

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Currently available in both the App Store and Google Play, the app known as Absher has been attacked by human rights groups and others over the ability it gives men in Saudi Arabia to manage and limit certain activities of women under their guardianship. On the surface, the app allows users to perform certain benign tasks such as getting a passport or birth certificate. But beyond that, the app lets men track their wives, daughters and other female relatives as a way to prevent them from traveling outside the the country. Through the app's text alerts, Saudi women seeking to escape violence and abuse by their husbands or fathers can potentially be found before they can get away.

Saudi Arabia has long been criticized by human rights advocates over its guardianship system. Under this system, Saudi women must get the approval of a male guardian before they can apply for a passport, travel beyond the country, get married or even leave prison. Some progress has been made. In 2018, Saudi women earned the right to drive. But the guardianship process still limits the ability of women in the country to lead independent lives. An app such as Absher gives men greater power and control over the women they "guard."

Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both condemned the app, according to Business Insider, which reported on Absher and its impact earlier this month.

"Apple and Google have rules against apps that facilitate threats and harassment," Human Rights Watch told Business Insider. "Apps like this one can facilitate human rights abuses, including discrimination against women."

Amnesty International said that the SMS alerts that men receive through the app are "another example of how the Saudi Arabian government has produced tools to limit women's freedoms." The group called on Apple and Google to realize that the app is being used to harm women, according to Business Insider.

From the US capital, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent letters to Apple and Google earlier this week asking them to immediately remove the app. A copy of the letter was shared on Twitter by Business Insider editor Jake Kantor.

"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 wrote in the letter. "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 and restrict their movement. This flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend."

In an interview with NPR on Monday, Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked about the Absher controversy. Cook said that he hadn't heard about it but that "obviously we'll take a look at it if that's the case."

Download.com contacted Apple, Google, the Saudi National Information Center and the Saudi Embassy for comment. Beyond Cook's promise to look into the situation, Apple has not yet publicly commented on the app. A Google spokesman told "The New York Times" that the company is "assessing the app to determine if it's in accordance with its policies."

On February 16, the Saudi Ministry of Interior issued the following statement in response to the criticism over the Absher app:

"An official source at Interior Ministry said, in a repose of what is being circulated about the application of services (Absher), that these allegations aim to disable the benefits of more than 160 different procedural services to all members of the society provided by the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabian to the citizens and residents, including women, the elderly, and people with special needs. The application represents electronic government services as an essential and direct means for the beneficiaries to access to the services at any time and from anywhere. The Ministry strongly condemns the systematic campaign aimed at questioning the purpose of (Abshar) services, which is provided on smart phones to facilitate the services to its beneficiaries. The Ministry of Interior at the same time confirms its rejection of the attempts to politicize the systematic use of technical instruments which represent legitimate rights to the users, and its keenness to protect the interests of the beneficiaries of its services."

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Takeaways

  1. Apple and Google are facing backlash for hosting an app from the Saudi government that allows men to monitor and limit the travel of their wives and daughters.
  2. The app plays into Saudi Arabia's guardianship system, which requires women to check in with a male guardian before they can apply for a password or travel beyond the country.

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Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books - "Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time" and "Teach Yourself VISUALLY LinkedIn."