S1E10 - Absher - The Wife Tracking App

This week we are going to do a deep dive into the Absher App, what it is, how its used and the way it’s changing our understanding of what it means to have free will and free agency as human beings.

Let’s jump right in.

In today’s political and societal climate, everywhere we look there is some sort of movement to either put all human beings on an equal playing field, or to widen the gaps so that some of us fall through the cracks.

There’s an endless list of movements and groups all believing that their version of what reality should be is the correct one. Although some are insane, others do have substantial points and do seem to have the best interest of mankind at the heart of their organizations. Some of the movements currently making the most waves include the following:

1.      the Pro-life movement

2.      the black lives matter movement

3.      the all lives matter movement

4.      the Proud boys

5.      The #MeToo movement

6.      The Feminist Movement

7.      The Men’s Rights Movement

I could keep listing them off, for possibly forever but the ones I want to cover are the last three.

You may be wondering where I am going with this episode and what in the hell The Absher App has to do with Social movements in general.

 If you have never heard of Absher, prepare to be more than slightly disturbed. Like all technology, I’m sure that the creation of Absher was the end result of a little bit of good intentions mixed in with a lot of need for control.

 According to Wikipedia “Absher is a smartphone application which allows citizens of and residents in Saudi Arabia to use a variety of governmental services. Amongst several other services with the Absher app, it can be applied for jobs and Hajj permits, passport info can be updated and electronic crimes can be reported.[2] The application provides 160 services for residents of Saudi Arabia including making appointments, renewing passports, residents' cards, IDs, driver's licenses and others,[3] and, controversially, enables Saudi men to track the whereabouts of women they control as part of the country's male guardianship system.[4]

 Yes, you heard that correctly. The application allows men to give or revoke permission for the women they either have guardianship over, so like daughters and sisters, or women they have legally married to do various activities or even just to leave the house.

 I’m not going to dive too deeply into the religious side of Saudi Arabia, because to be honest that isn’t what interests me about this topic. And I really don’t care what religion anyone believes in. What really gets my mind up and running is the intersection between human behavior and technological advancements.

Since the creation of the internet, it was unbelievably clear that these two things would be perpetually intertwined. Simply because, even though we are the ones creating this tech, we continue to push the boundaries while complaining the entire time.

 When I say this one had me spiraling down a rabbit hole for hours, I’m not kidding.

 The original goal of the Saudi Arabian government was to create a way to stream line the process of getting traveling documents, updating information etc. They wanted to reduce wait times outside passporting locations, have a more accurate profile of their citizens and just overall make life easier for both residents & those working at these government buildings.

 Like I said earlier, good intentions, right?

 The name itself even means “Good Tidings” or roughly “Yes”.

 Absher was created in 2015 and is available on the google play store and the Apple App store. By February of 2019 the app had been downloaded 4.2 million times from the Apple App store and had over 11 million total users!

Its safe to say that there is quite a market for this technology.

 Considering that one of the goals of the Saudi government was to create a way for residents to easily and quickly access various services. The app quickly proved to be essential to the day to day lives of Saudi citizens.

 It wasn’t until early 2019 that news outlets began to report on the wife tracking service that was a large part of the app itself.

 Countless media outlets began reporting the story of how two sisters gained access to their male guardians Absher account to give themselves permission to leave the country. This permission allowed them to escape.

 The male guardianship system and has been around for years. Now this isn’t an episode about the Saudi law system but the laws in place do play a large role in this app so let’s get into why Absher is such an interesting app.

 What I found the most interesting about this is that, this app is prospering because the laws in the country it was created in allow for it to be used in this way.

 What is legal in one area or country affects the technology that is created and how it’s used.

 Let me explain a bit.

 As a man, it is completely legal and encouraged to be in control of an entire, fully grown woman. Meaning, Saudi men need to be able to know exactly where any woman under their guard is at a moments notice.

 They need to know what these women are doing, how long they will be doing it, why and whether they approve of it.

 For decades, Saudi Arabia has had many laws that westerners view as anti-feminist, and incredibly disturbing. I’m sure most of you remember that it wasn’t too long ago that Saudi gave women the right to vote (2015), and even more recently (2018) the right to drive.

 The passing of these rights was the step Saudi took to begin addressing the concerns about human rights violations addressed by the United nations.

 The Humans Rights Watch Website stated that:

“Women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia have repeatedly called on the government to abolish the male guardianship system, which the government agreed to do in 2009 and again in 2013 after its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Following both hearings, Saudi Arabia took limited steps to reform certain aspects of the guardianship system. But, these changes remain insufficient, incomplete, and ineffective; today, the guardianship system remains mostly intact.”

Currently, Saudi women must still follow the male guardianship law and the consequences of doing anything without the permission of their guardians can be severe.

For instance, in an interview written by Ann-Marie Bissada on RFI she discusses the case of a Saudi woman.

 “In 2012, Saffaa created her own movement in English, which soon joined forces with the Arabic one. Hers is #Iammyownguardian.

Much of her art work now goes into promoting the rights of Saudi women and has become representative of both the Arabic and English movements.

Her popular portrait of a young veiled woman with defiant eyes was inspired by Maryam, one of the first women to be involved in the online movement in Saudi Arabia.

Maryam initially went to prison because she refused to deactivate her social media account from which she was voicing her opinions on freedom.

As her guardian, her father reported her for disobedience, and she was put in prison. But with the large following she had gathered online, there was pressure to release her. Saffaa adds: “It was becoming shameful for them to keep her in jail.”

 Yet again the confluence of technology (social media) and human behavior presents itself. This time, a bit more positive.

 As I have said before, the advancements in technology results in the opportunity to use it in both positive and negative ways. In this case, social media allowed Maryam to connect with others capable of influencing her fate and getting her released from prison.

 Even though this was before the release of the Absher app, its safe to say that in this case, the existence of the app itself would simply have made it easier and quicker for her father to report her to the authorities and have her jailed. Thus, contributing to the negative side of human interaction and the withholding of the rights of women.

What is even more disturbing is that shortly after the articles about Absher’s women tracking feature, a PR spin began to flood media outlets.

 Countless articles began quoting Saudi women saying that Absher was a response to the time wasted and the headache of political bureaucracy.

 The articles claimed that before Absher, husbands, fathers and even brothers had to physically accompany any woman outside the home or provide a male relative who could supervise women as they went about their day to day tasks.

 Currently Saudi women need the permission and supervision of their male guardians to do all of the following and a whole bunch more:

·         Marriage and divorce

·         Travel

·         Education

·         Employment

·         Opening a bank account

·         Elective surgery or other medical procedures

 The articles state that this became tedious for men, and impossible to keep up with. So, the government created Absher to help its citizens by removing the long lines and form filling that comes with the Male guardianship law as well as the other services.

 In an article on Arab News “Muna Abu Sulayman, an award-winning strategy adviser and media personality, told Arab News the introduction of Absher had helped strengthen women’s rights.”

 She continues; “In a Twitter survey, I asked how many women have access to their guardian’s Absher. Most answered that they control their own fate. Men who don’t believe in controlling women gave them access to their Absher and that shows an increase in the participation of women in their own decision-making.”

 The problem is, these women still need to be given the access to their own lives. Especially when you consider the role of women and the violence against women throughout history.

 Wikipedia described the following:

 “Domestic abuse in Saudi Arabia started to receive public attention in 2004 after a popular television presenter, Rania al-Baz, was severely beaten by her husband, and photographs of her bruised and swollen face were published in the press.[5][6] According to Al-Baz, her husband beat her, intending to kill her, after she answered the phone without his permission.[7]

 Needing permission to leave a household or even a country has some pretty serious consequences for women who are in domestic abuse situations. It means they are stuck and with apps like Absher that claim to also provide a crime reporting service, the underlying law or culture is also the basis for which crimes are reported and punished.

 It makes you wonder, who exactly are these apps protecting and creating a simpler life for?

 On the same Human Rights Watch website I mentioned earlier a different “Rania, a 34-year-old Saudi woman, said, “We are entrusted with raising the next generation but you can’t trust us with ourselves. It doesn’t make any sense.””

 In an Bloomberg Opinion piece Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has said the government needs to eventually “figure out a way to treat this in a way that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture.”

 The Saudi Government did end up passing a law-making domestic violence a crime in 2013, taking another step in the right direction.

 In my opinion, Absher has some great features. But where the apps creepy factor begins to rise is when we begin looking at the laws in place that the app was based on and how that contributes to the inequality in genders.  Inequality is a substantial player when it comes to human behaviors and the foundation which determines societal norms and standards.

 My question to you is, if the laws are unfair, or discriminatory and we know that they are. Should we be able create technology that perpetuates the discrimination? Should governments allow tech developers to create software, gadgets or companies that are very clearly damaging to the human condition?

 I don’t think so. I believe that the governments should be required to change their laws to be more inclusive and non-discriminatory before they create, distribute and implement any technology to their citizens.

 IF the governments job is to protect the rights of individuals, they should not be creating tech or avenues where these very rights are jeopardized.

 Now, The two big players distributing the Absher app are Apple & Google. Both of which decided to continue listing the app for download on their platforms even after countless calls to remove the apps.

 An article on Fortune stated that one of the letters sent was by “Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who sent a separate letter to Apple and Google, said, “American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy.”

 The article also stated that after an internal investigation, “Google will continue to host the controversial Saudi Arabian app Absher in its Play store after a probe found the app did not violate its terms of service.”

While Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that an internal investigation will be done, there is still no word from Apple on whether they will stop listing Absher on their app store. I expect that Apple will follow Google’s decision unless a substantial uproar occurs.

 In my opinion, the app is essentially reinforcing some less than satisfactory laws which limit women’s potential.

Sure, the Saudi government has repeatedly declared “women—half of the country’s population—to be a “great asset” whose talents will be developed for the good of the country’s society and economy.” at every UN Human Rights Council review for over a decade.

 Without the removal of laws like the male guardianship system and technology that reinforces these laws, its clear that these statements are simply empty promises.

Its also terribly clear that as these laws remain the standard, future technology will have far more dire consequences for women. Not to mention the additional issues that will arise as other movements from underrepresented communities begin to gain support and gather the attention of media outlets.

Now the other thing I found deeply interesting about Absher is how they handle privacy. Since the app is a government created tech, the terms of service are actually listed on the Ministry of Interior website. One of the terms is that individuals or businesses must request permission to even hyperlink to their website. That being the case, I have not linked to their website.

However, the one thing that did stand out is that the government does state that using their services does not guarantee anyone confidentiality. The site also does not explain what data is collected, or how it is used.

The website also states that the ministry does reserve the right to disable any links that they find defamatory, profane, or containing information that infringes on any laws.

The ethical dilemmas that this short term of service could lead to are countless especially when we take into consideration that the very creator of the app is the government.

I’d like to know what you think about the Absher App.

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