Before apps became such a huge part of our daily lives, Saudi women had to present a signed yellow form whenever they travelled overseas unaccompanied by their guardians, which was easier to forge, but because Absher works in real-time, it's much harder to get around.
The resulting impact on freedom of movement has been corroborated in the article by multiple activists and experts on the Middle East and human rights. But it also tracks women, particularly wives, sisters and daughters, on whether they're leaving the country and it allows restrictions on when they can leave on certain dates.
Absher is a Saudi government app for users to conduct municipal business, such as paying traffic fines. "The use of the Absher app to curtail the movement of women once again highlights the disturbing system of discrimination against women under the guardianship system and the need for genuine human rights reforms in the country, rather than just social and economic reforms". It functions as a e-government portal for the Saudi Interior Ministry, and it helps facilitate a guardianship system in a nation that doesn't allow women to travel without permission from a male guardian.
A 2016 report by Human Rights Watch also outlines how an automatic text message service within the app alerts male guardians when women enter and exit the country.
Human Rights Watch's Rothna Begum told INSIDER: "Apple and Google have rules against apps that facilitate threats and harassment".
Cook's comments to NPR are the first time Apple has addressed the app after it declined to respond to INSIDER's repeated requests for comment.
Apple does not include the number of downloads for apps, but according to the Google Play Store, Absher has been downloaded more than a million times. The Interior Ministry says on its website that Absher platforms for individuals and businesses have more than 11 million users. "So, you can safely browse your profile or your family members, or labors [sic] working for you, and perform a wide range of eServices online". Download data is not available for Apple devices.
The app raises awkward questions for Apple and Google, two of the biggest players in Silicon Valley, where tech firms have well-established links to Saudi Arabia.
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