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Lawmakers blast Google and Apple over intrusive app that lets Saudi men track women

Lawmakers blast Google and Apple over intrusive app that lets Saudi men track women
[Photos: Flickr user Nguyen Hung Vu (Pichai); Flickr user Austin Community College (Cook)]

Fourteen members of Congress have some very strong words for Google and Apple. In a letter sent to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai, the lawmakers said that if the tech companies continue to allow a controversial app called Absher to be sold in their app stores, they were serving as “accomplices in the oppression of Saudi women.”

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The harsh critique is justified by the intrusive nature of the app, which lets male family members track the movements of their female relatives and even prevent them from traveling outside the home. The app sends men “real-time text message alerts every time these women enter or leave the country or to prevent these women from leaving the country,” according to the letter from Congress.

The app was created by the National Information Center, which, according to a Saudi government website, is a project of the Saudi Ministry of Interior. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have expressed concern over the app, which furthers Saudi Arabia’s repression of women and the discriminatory male guardianship system, which requires adult women to obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, marry, or be released from prison.

Now, Congress is in the fight, too. As Business Insider reports, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sent a letter to both companies asking them to remove the app, saying in part:

The ingenuity of American technology companies should not be perverted to violate the human rights of Saudi women. Twenty first century innovations should not perpetuate sixteenth century tyranny. Keeping this application in your stores allows your companies and your American employees to be accomplices in the oppression of Saudi Arabian women and migrant workers.

The letter calls for the two CEOs to respond by February 28. Two weeks ago, Cook told NPR he was unaware of the app, and promised to investigate. But despite the pressure and criticism, at the time of this writing, the app remains available at Apple and Google.

We’ve reached out to both companies and will update if we hear back.

The difficulty for Apple and Google may lie in the fact that the Absher app was created by an official government entity. While it can be used to monitor women’s movement, as 9to5Mac notes, it is also used to access more than 160 different government services, from renewing driving licenses to paying parking tickets online to making hospital appointments. That undoubtedly makes it a far more difficult decision than it should be to pull the app.

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