Human rights campaigners have called on Apple and Google to be more transparent about their app store approval processes after it emerged that both platforms have hosted a Saudi Arabian government app that allowed men to track women’s activity.
The Absher mobile app, which is available in English and Arabic on both iTunes and Google Play Store, is a general purpose government app which allows Saudi citizens perform basic tasks such as paying parking fines or applying for a passport.
But its “dependents information” function has drawn intense criticism from human rights campaigners as it allows men to control and track the movements of women under the country’s “guardianship” system.
Under Saudi Arabian law, all women are under the guardianship of a male relative who have to give them permission to leave the country, get an education or go to work.
Previously, if a woman wanted to leave the country she had to get a form from the Ministry of Interior for her guardian to sign. Once a man had given his approval for a woman to leave the country he had little ability to track where she went.
But with the app, which became available on iOs devices in 2015 and Android devices in 2016, men could opt to receive text message notifications when women left the airport and could say where she was allowed to go and for how long.
Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Euronews: “They are using modern technology to further a patriarchal system”.
She said there was nothing wrong with governments using a digital app to stream state services but not when it becomes a tool to oppress women.
The tech firms could ask the Saudi government to remove the 'dependents' feature from Absher and leave the other services, she added.
Begum has called on tech firms to be more transparent about their processes for approving apps on their platforms.
She said Google does not pre-monitor apps that appear on its Play Store and will review them if they are “flagged” as inappropriate.
Begum said Apple does pre-moderate the apps it allows on the platform but it is not clear what they screen apps for.
They seem to be focused on protecting the security of the iOs system, she added.
She said both companies have rules about which apps are allowed on the platform but it is unclear how they are applied.
Google’s developer content policy says it does not allow apps which promote violence or incite hatred or facilitate threats, harassment, bullying or “illegal activity”, while Apple says it rejects apps which “behave in ways that risk physical harm” or which include “discriminatory” content which places a targeted group in harm’s way.
Apple has not responded to Euronews' request for comment but CEO Tim Cook told US radio station NPR that he would "investigate" the issue.
Google has not responded to a request for comment.