Saudi App Lets Men Track Their Female Charges
February 11, 2019 10:40 AM   Subscribe

Apple and Google have been accused of helping to "enforce gender apartheid" in Saudi Arabia, by offering a sinister app which allows men to track women and stop them leaving the country. Both Google Play and iTunes host Absher, a government web service which allows men to specify when and how women can cross Saudi borders, and to get close to real-time SMS updates when they travel.

(CW self-harm) Absher also has benign functions — like paying parking fines — but its travel features have been identified by activists and refugees as a major factor in the continued difficulty women have leaving Saudi Arabia. Neither Apple nor Google responded to repeated requests for comment from INSIDER over several days prior to publication.

This general-purpose app supports many services. It just so happens that one of them is allowing the male guardians of Saudi women to both track and limit the movements of their female charges. This can be handy, given that some women in Saudi Arabia make plans to flee, flee successfully, or, in the case of two sisters, choose suicide over returning to a homeland whose government has and continues to torture activists who simply advocate for basic rights for women.

In case you don't know or have forgotten, "under the male guardianship system, a man controls a Saudi woman’s life from her birth until her death," as noted by Human Rights Watch in handy guide called Saudi Arabia: 10 Reasons Why Women Flee. "Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian, normally a father or husband, but in some cases a brother or even a son, who has the power to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf. The Saudi state essentially treats women as permanent legal minors. Saudi Arabia has done very little to end the system, which remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country."
posted by Bella Donna (45 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
When corporations are the arbiters of morality, all decisions are made about money. Nothing is as profitable as oppression.
posted by Revvy at 11:15 AM on February 11 [37 favorites]


Eons ago there was an article in Cosmo about young Saudi women. It was about how even though they were super rich their life wasn’t easy, they were forced in arranged marriages at early ages. I remember that a friend of the girls interviewed said a friend had committed suicide in her family’s pool rather than be married off.

I remember people telling me it was “sensational” and couldn’t possibly be true.

That was almost 25 year ago, I think. I was just starting to learn about these things. That story has stuck with me all this time.

I don’t really have anything to add. Just sad but not surprised this is going on.
posted by sio42 at 11:20 AM on February 11 [6 favorites]


When corporations are the arbiters of morality, all decisions are made about money. Nothing is as profitable as oppression.

Agreed but I think there's plenty of intersectionality going around. For starters, capitalism? Sure? Patriarchy? Ubetcha! Because the app does many many many things, it is possible that Apple and Google did not know, at least officially, that tracking was a part of the app. The driver behind the app is the Saudi government, not the distributors of the app. I am not giving those companies a free pass, far from it.
posted by Bella Donna at 11:25 AM on February 11 [4 favorites]


If you think this isn't happening in the west, you're blissfully ignorant.
posted by Yowser at 11:25 AM on February 11 [6 favorites]


Yowser: What is the app, in the West, that informs the government (and which they happily comply with) of where my wife can and cannot go and what she can and cannot do?
posted by Cosine at 11:29 AM on February 11 [30 favorites]


I am not giving those companies a free pass, far from it.

I'm not saying you're giving them a free pass. I'm saying you're expecting behavior from them that not only goes against their nature, it represents an existential threat. Expecting moral behavior from an entity without any morality is a well-paved road to disappointment.

Guilt and shame have no effect on the bottom line.
posted by Revvy at 11:39 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


And in a neighboring country: “A Princess Vanishes. A Video Offers Alarming Clues.”
posted by D.C. at 11:50 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


I think it's less about expecting it and more about demanding it, and I think that's what Bella Donna means too.

I agree that they will not comply of their own accord.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 11:52 AM on February 11 [2 favorites]


Expecting moral behavior from an entity without any morality is a well-paved road to disappointment.

Expecting moral behaviour from any entity without a system of appropriate sanctions is a well-paved road to disappointment. I'm a socialist, but I can't pretend that it's impossible to force corporate entities to behave reasonably morally, any more than it's impossible to force people to behave reasonably morally if you have sufficient social, economic and legal leverage. The problem is not that corporations are psychopaths; the problem is that many corporate entities are often too powerful to subject to appropriate sanctions.

But this doesn't mean there are no sanctions. Public disapproval expressed through boycotts and protest is frequently a very effective sanction (for both the left and the right, although I have no real sense of whether one profits more than the other). We aren't entirely powerless to enact moral sanctions, even living under capitalism. We can't expect moral behaviour from anyone, we can only demand it. And while many of us would rather be able to demand it all at once, a lot of the time the only option we have is working for piecemeal solutions under the appalling system in place, because in the end what else can you do, except give up?
posted by howfar at 11:57 AM on February 11 [12 favorites]


Did I accidentally indicate in some way that I was expecting moral behavior from these companies? If so, please allow me to correct the record. I don't expect moral behavior from corporations anywhere. In my experience, companies do sometimes respond to public pressure (and not because of morals), which is why Sleeping Giants, for example, has had some success in getting various advertisers to stop spending money on various Fox TV shows. If customers of Google and Apple make enough noise about this, it is possible that the companies will consider it bad PR and drop the app. That would be great.

And yet, the government (or the company behind the original app) can surely create something similar and distribute it directly if need be. The app is not the problem. It is the sizzle, not the steak. It gave me something outrageous to hang this post on but it is not the problem. It is a symptom of the problem. The problem is the male guardianship system. Lots of people don't realize how bad it is. So coverage of two alarming features of this app may be educational. I hope so.
posted by Bella Donna at 11:57 AM on February 11 [9 favorites]


Not only that, our governments collude in the oppression, I was reading an article the either day about how two sisters made it out of Saudi, through Indonesia and Hong Kong (if I recall correctly) all the way to Australia, only to get into the country and have border control here ask why they were travelling without their guardians.

The women begged for asylum but because they had no permission from their guardians and it was against the law in their own country to be travelling, border control contacted the Saudi embassy and had them deported back home where they haven’t been heard from again. I’ll look for the article but it included multiple examples or women attempting escape, some successful, some not.
posted by Jubey at 12:12 PM on February 11 [23 favorites]


Do No Constant Evil.
posted by Mayor West at 12:24 PM on February 11 [2 favorites]


Horrifying.

Between all the questionable things that Trudeau's government has done here in Canada, its willingness to criticize the Saudi government on women's issues and to take Saudi women in as refugees has been a bright spot.
posted by clawsoon at 12:28 PM on February 11 [14 favorites]


Expecting moral behaviour from any entity without a system of appropriate sanctions is a well-paved road to disappointment.

I see punishment and reward drives all the time in corporations, with their distributed and externalized accountability, but do you really believe that people have no such inherent morality? How do you explain people who feel oppressed if they have no inherent morality about it?
posted by Revvy at 12:29 PM on February 11


Jubey: " I was reading an article the either day about how two sisters made it out of Saudi, through Indonesia and Hong Kong (if I recall correctly) all the way to Australia, only to get into the country and have border control here ask why they were travelling without their guardians. "

The article is here: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-02-04/border-force-accused-of-targeting-saudi-women-traveling-alone/10768036. Terrible stuff.
posted by crazy with stars at 12:45 PM on February 11 [7 favorites]


When corporations are the arbiters of morality, all decisions are made about money. Nothing is as profitable as oppression.

The "corporation" in this case is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
posted by sideshow at 12:45 PM on February 11


The "corporation" in this case is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

And Apple and Google, which in this case are more than happy to sell in their marketplaces apps whose express purpose is to subjugate women.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 12:52 PM on February 11 [9 favorites]


As an employee of a company that does iOS apps among other things: don't expect a lot from App Review or App Store oversight in general. There are 2M+ apps in the App Store, with thousands added every day and new versions of previous apps further filling the review queues. Most reviewers have neither time nor interest in giving a damn about what the functionalities of any given app are, just that they aren't actively broken at a glance, or blatantly breaking the rules (and rule violations slip through all the time, especially for rule 4.1, "Copycats").

Right now, the app isn't in unambiguous violation of the rules as far as I can tell. There are rules with which you could sorta argue that the app is on thin ice, but any concrete ruling based on them would be problematic in the general case without further clarifications to the text. Apple has frequently evolved the rules like this in the past, so it's definitely still possible here. It's also somewhat interesting to note that the description of the app or its version history make no mention of this functionality at all, at least in the English version.

Perhaps the one seemingly clear violation that I could find is rule 5.1.1, "Data Collection and Storage", section (i) on privacy policies. The Privacy Policy linked to on the app's app store page is just a terms of use (text-only Google Cache) document of the Saudi Ministy of Interior Portal that, to my non-lawyer eyes, fulfills precisely none of the rule requirements. Obviously, the app reviewer hasn't read the document. I would be shocked if any of them ever did, more than to just check that the link isn't broken. (Which it was for me when I checked, ironically enough.) So you could probably nail them on this, but they would just draft up a quick new document and be right back to following the letter of the law.

My personal opinion is that the app is loathsome, as is Saudi Arabia in general, and I would really like to see some western values imposed on the fuckers, forcing the app to drop that functionality. Nonetheless, stepping on the toes of a wealthy, influential nation state by tut-tutting them on their laws and culture is not something I'd take lightly as a massive global corporation, so I can see why this is a thorny, complicated issue and why they haven't commented to the press yet. I hope the bad PR forces their hand eventually, making them amend the rules in a way that gives them a clear reason to drop the app in its current form and any similar ones that might pop up in the future.
posted by jklaiho at 1:00 PM on February 11 [4 favorites]


Crazy with stars, thanks for the link but it wasn’t that article, (though it appears to have some of the same cases) it may have been SMH or the Guardian, this one went into extended detail about multiple cases and mentioned that the sisters vanished without a trace and there were concerns for them (ya think!) Either way the Australian government most likely has blood on its hands because I doubt these women are still alive.
posted by Jubey at 1:06 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


According the article, the apps are just interfaces to the existing government web service. In fact, besides a screenshot of the iOS login page, everything is pictures of the "desktop" version. It's not even clear if the mobile apps have the bad functionality in them.

My personal opinion is that the app is loathsome, as is Saudi Arabia in general, and I would really like to see some western values imposed on the fuckers, forcing the app to drop that functionality.

If your feeling is the western tech companies aren't doing enough to facilitate regime change in countries with poor human rights records, then yeah, that's a stance with legitimate differences with how these companies operate. Apple/Google et al are going to follow the laws of whatever country they are operating in. However, I'd bet that many/most people hoping these companies get more involved in foreign politics didn't agree when United Fruit Company was doing it.
posted by sideshow at 1:12 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Google: muh don't be evil
Also Google: here's some shit they don't even have in The Handmaid's Tale
posted by Damienmce at 1:14 PM on February 11 [8 favorites]


I don't think the app is really doing anything other than providing a nice front end to the government service. It's the equivalent of a web page. No doubt the actual location tracking / notification features are enabled by the mobile providers who are working at the pleasure of government, as well as the data.

The article is grossly overstating Apple and Google's complicity in this, although it is present.
posted by meowzilla at 1:22 PM on February 11


(I'll bet the Facebook version of this automatically dispatches a drone / gang or mercenaries to retrieve her)
posted by Damienmce at 1:24 PM on February 11


do you really believe that people have no such inherent morality

Absolutely. My reason for this is both that I accept Marx's basic contention that there is no such thing as "human nature", but rather a cognitive and behavioural manifestation of complex conditions (although I do often take issue with his assessment of the extent and impact of those conditions), and because I've met a 3 year old. 3 year olds are not evil, and they are capable of love and compassion, but they are not moral. They do not recognise (and shape their perceptions of reality in accordance with) ideas like fairness or forgiveness in any but the most self-serving of ways. They're not monsters, they just haven't imbibed morality yet. There's a reason why people constantly compare Trump to a toddler, I guess. He's never really been punished for anything in his life, and he's never progressed beyond infantile amorality.

In my view, people have drives, societies have moralities. They're not worthless because we have to construct them; to the contrary, it seems to me that it's the diligent and thoughtful construction and maintenance of a morality that gives it its value as something experienced by people in the world, rather than merely an abstract set of intuitions.

Our moral instincts are themselves a form of social sanction. They are just self-imposed on the basis of early training and sufficient reinforcement.
posted by howfar at 1:32 PM on February 11 [6 favorites]


Our moral instincts are themselves a form of social sanction.

Instincts are not learned behaviors. I'm having similar difficulties with the rest of your arguments, too.
posted by Revvy at 2:03 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Furthermore to the above, the argument goes: that without the "knowledge of good and evil" obtained by the first humans from the tree of knowledge, there could be no morality at all.
posted by some loser at 2:04 PM on February 11


Egyptian Mona Eltahawy is an amazing scholar of the Saudi guardianship system, and is one of the best -- if not the best -- English-language critics of retrograde Middle-Eastern social policies I've come across. She is smart, angry, and extremely online.

It's a huge problem that I'm having second thoughts about promoting her here, knowing how shitty the KSA can act against their dissidents, but nobody is louder about her than herself, so I'll take her example.
posted by rhizome at 2:31 PM on February 11 [11 favorites]


If you think this isn't happening in the west, you're blissfully ignorant.

I'm definitely not blissful but perhaps ignorant, so maybe you could elaborate for me? I mean I know Apple has the Find Friends app/feature, and I'm sure Google has something similar, but these are optional for the Mrs. to turn on and off as she chooses, no? There's certainly nothing stopping her from grabbing her passport and heading anywhere in the world she wants, all I could do is maybe report a credit card as stolen?

When we lived in Malaysia, the things Mrs. allkindsoftime required my oral approval for (as in, they would not help with her unless they called me and spoke to me on the phone in person) included:

- opening / closing a bank account, utilities account or mobile phone account
- make any meaningful changes to any of the above accounts
- withdrawal of cash above a paltry sum roughly equivalent to $20
- use a credit card, anywhere
- get any documents notarized / etc.
- buy anything sized appliance and up

Meanwhile, I had the ability to have multiple wives and divorce any of them via text message and it would be legally binding.

We're back in America now and it's quite different.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:59 PM on February 11 [17 favorites]


Also Google: here's some shit they don't even have in The Handmaid's Tale

Wait for the sequel.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:05 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting this Bella Donna. I was writing up a post on the topic for the last couple days and kept on getting derailed by how horrific the whole guardianship etc. situation is. This tale of a rape victim getting sentenced to jail + 200! lashes for getting raped (and escaping murder at the hands of her brother) is worth reading if you can handle it (basically trigger warning for practically everything).
posted by Mitheral at 7:25 PM on February 11 [1 favorite]


I can't find much information on the English web about Absher. The previous article by the same author on Insider largely recapitulates the same information, but without the clickbaity app-store spin, and then there are a ton of other sites restating the stuff from the first two articles. The Android and Apple apps are visible and beginning to show signs of the larger internet taking notice, in the forms of a series of reviews mentioning misogyny on the Android store and what is surely a troll review stating "great way to control your wife" as the featured review on the Apple store.

The article's author makes a few technical mistakes, like talking about the app downloading a website, that make me distrust his technical expertise. I'm all in favor of the app stores removing this application, but for all we know it could just be a web browser that connects to the existing site, and either way removing the apps won't remove the ability of Saudis to use this functionality.
posted by whir at 8:39 PM on February 11


Instincts are not learned behaviors.

I don't think that semantic claim is really supported by our experience of the world. I instinctively look right when I step out to cross a road. In most of the world, people look left. I feel comfortable saying that those instincts are learned behaviours.
posted by howfar at 1:43 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


If your feeling is the western tech companies aren't doing enough to facilitate regime change in countries with poor human rights records, then yeah, that's a stance with legitimate differences with how these companies operate.

My feeling is well short of expecting regime change. I expect that western tech companies should, at a bare minimum, work towards a goal of ensuring basic human rights (for example) to its users. Like:

Right to Equality
Right to Life, Liberty, Personal Security
Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Exile
Right to Free Movement in and out of the Country

... just for starters. I mean, how is this compliant with GDPR, in detail and in spirit? Wouldn't "don't be evil" entail basic human rights, like, somehow?

Hiding behind a "legal in the country of use / origin" is quite a fig leaf.

I'm just dumbfounded here.
posted by Dashy at 8:45 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


If you think this isn't happening in the west, you're blissfully ignorant.

To the extent the Saudis are doing it? Not on any broad scale.

Comparing misogyny in Europe and North America to what the Salafis are doing doesn't seem particularly productive in either case.

The willingness of tech companies in The West™ to kowtow to oppressive regimes is something we can potentially affect from this end though - put pressure on these companies to make the House of Saud roll its own app store if they want such an app.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:01 AM on February 12 [4 favorites]


I feel comfortable saying that those instincts are learned behaviours.

Instincts are not learned behaviors. In fact, learning is the specific difference between the two. Looking left or right at the street, as you correctly point out, is a learned behavior. Instincts are innate behaviors we are born with, like suckling and the desire for comfort in the face of contradiction.
posted by Revvy at 9:49 AM on February 12


You habitually look both ways before crossing the street.
posted by rhizome at 9:58 AM on February 12


I mean, how is this compliant with GDPR, in detail and in spirit?

The GDPR only applies to people residing in Europe.
Who does the GDPR affect?
The GDPR not only applies to organisations located within the EU but also applies to organisations located outside of the EU if they offer goods or services to, or monitor the behaviour of, EU data subjects. It applies to all companies processing and holding the personal data of data subjects residing in the European Union, regardless of the company’s location.
posted by Revvy at 10:14 AM on February 12 [1 favorite]


Instincts are innate behaviors we are born with, like suckling and the desire for comfort in the face of contradiction.

If this conversation is now just about the definition of the word "instinct" it's probably done.
posted by howfar at 10:33 AM on February 12 [2 favorites]


It's a crucial concept for the discussions of moral and cultural relativism, which is what this whole thing is really about. If morality and fairness are innate instincts, it's pretty easy to argue that what Saudi Arabia is doing is wrong and corporations like Apple and Google have a moral obligation to not participate in it or enable it.

If, however, morality is a learned behavior, it can still be argued that the moral responsibility remains, but it stems from culturally-based learning what is right and wrong, rather than knowing it instinctively, and that brings in cultural relativism in a big way, forcing companies to work within a ever-changing set of contradictory laws and individual expectations.

My personal view is that morality is innate, and I think it's a fascinating discussion to have with lots of various tendrils, like the moral obligations of corporations across cultural and state boundaries.
posted by Revvy at 11:35 AM on February 12


I think there's a conflation going on, here, of the belief in moral truths independent of human belief, and the question of whether human beings are innately moral. There's nothing contradictory in believing both that there is a single moral law, and that human beings are inherently sinful creatures that can only ever learn to be good through following an external example. The Christian doctrines of orginal sin and redemption through repentance and faith are an example of this, I'd argue.

From my perspective, the question of whether morality is objective is less relevant to this issue than whether it is innate to human beings. But I don't personally find the idea of innate morality appealing from a practical perspective, because I think that we need to be primarily behaviourist when thinking about how we use our limited power to enforce moral (and sanction immoral) behaviour among the powerful (including many corporate entities). I don't think a focus on the innate moral character of an actor is as important as identifying the current and contingent factors that help us to achieve particular outcomes.
posted by howfar at 12:21 PM on February 12 [1 favorite]


It's less a conflation than a logical consequence of not dogmatically accepting internally inconsistent belief systems. Outside of the belief in moral reward arbitrated by an external entity, faith and redemption have no moral value. And this is a great example of a conversation that's only possible if we agree on the definitions of the words we're using.
posted by Revvy at 12:58 PM on February 12


And this is how you intellectualize the horror out of a horrifying situation.
posted by clawsoon at 1:15 PM on February 12 [12 favorites]


Outside of the belief in moral reward arbitrated by an external entity, faith and redemption have no moral value.

But there really is no logical or practical necessity for that external entity to derive its power to reward from any innate universal principle. There are real external entities that regulate and reward moral behaviour: other people (and our societal institutions). You only run into difficulties if you start from the assumption that morality must be universal in order to be significant.
posted by howfar at 1:17 PM on February 12


And this is how you intellectualize the horror out of a horrifying situation.

Well done. Have a favourite!
posted by howfar at 1:18 PM on February 12


Frankly I find the idea of an innate moral character patently absurd.

Now that this thread seems to have thankfully petered out from the philosophy 101 ontological navel-gazing, I'm still quite curious about the backlash to the app, so if anyone has information or ideas about substantive response I'd be quite interested.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:39 PM on February 14 [2 favorites]


« Older "I have a dream that one day Dodge will commodify...   |   "The networks, all of them, dance to the NFL's... Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.