Saudi Arabian Government App, Absher, Allows Men To Keep Tabs On Women Who Are Their Dependents

By Nessira Randolph on March 13, 2019

At the intersection of mobile apps and human rights there is currently a controversy. As mobile app developers and supporters of human rights, we are eager to join the discussion.

A Saudi Arabian government app, Absher, allows users to pay parking fines, renew a license, and most questionably, allows men to keep tabs on the women who are their dependents.

According to Insider, “Absher has multiple meanings in Arabic, including ‘your request is granted,’ ‘good tidings,’ or ‘at your service.’ It is the state-run e-service that contains an online expression of Saudi Arabia’s restrictive male-guardianship laws.”

Legally, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to travel alone – the app allows men to receive text alerts when a woman in their family uses her passport and gives them the ability to revoke her travel permissions as well as track her movements.

Rothna Begum, a senior researcher on women’s rights at Human Rights Watch, spoke to NPR about the app: “They should consider the human rights implications … especially when it’s offered by a government,” she says. “When they’re evaluating whether an app should be allowed … providers really should consider the broader context or the purpose of the app, how it’s being used in practice and whether it’s facilitating abuse.”

The debate in the United States is centered around the US hosts of the app: Google and Apple.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden wrote an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai in which he implored them to remove the app from their stores:

“I ask that you take immediate action to prevent your technical infrastructure, including your app stores, from being used by the Saudi government to enable the abhorrent surveillance and control of women. Your employees and your customers expect better, as do millions and millions of Americans who support America’s promotion of basic rights and dignity around the world.”

Here in the United States we have endless freedoms that we often take for granted. When faced with foreign matters that call into question differences of culture, important discussions are ignited, forcing us to figure out where – in very specific incidents – we believe the human rights line should be drawn.

In this case, the mobile app Absher, which was born 11 years ago as a government website, is extremely useful as an orthodox tool to complete ordinary tasks. When the added aspect of male-dominated control enters the picture, it is difficult to comfortably agree with our familiar tech giants, Google and Apple, that the app should have a home with them.

Our work here at Blue Label Labs is part of the bigger picture process of bringing mobile app ideas to fruition; from concept to home screen. We are picky about the projects we take on, because so much goes into each design, and we believe every digital product should reflect its creators’ values and integrity.