Absher is a database application and government portal created by and for the government of Saudi Arabia. While the application has many similarities to other government websites, because of restrictions on the rights of women within the nation, Absher also features a database of the country’s female citizens, allowing their husbands to put travel restrictions on them from inside the app. Once selected, this will invalidate the female citizen’s passport, barring them from leaving the country. As a result, the application has been heavily criticized outside of Saudi Arabia.
Absher launched on June 29th, 2015 on Apple’s iOS mobile operating system.
By default, Absher is an Arabic-language application but also has the capacity to be translated into English. One of the main uses for the application is as a government portal. Users can pay traffic tickets, register vehicles and book appointments at passport offices.
Additionally, male users can set travel restrictions on their female dependents, including how many trips they are allowed to take and for how long (screenshot below, right). If a female dependent attempts to bypass these restrictions by traveling while the restrictions are set, the male user receives a push notification, alerting them to restricted female travel.
On February 1st, 2019, Insider published an expose on the application, as well as relaying stories of women who were stopped at border crossings, attempting to flee the country, because of Absher.
Nearly two weeks later, United States Senator Roby Wyden (Oregon) wrote an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai demanding that the application be removed from their respective app stores. He writes:
I write to ask that you immediately remove from your app stores the Saudi government’s Absher app, which enables Saudi men to track and control the movements of Saudi women.
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.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Cook said that he would investigate the application. He said, “I haven’t heard about it. But obviously, we’ll take a look at it if that’s the case.”