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Saudi Tracking App Under Fire By Human Rights Organizations for Putting Women At Risk

SNLS | February 20, 2019

By Aaron Kesel

The media is in a frenzy in regards to a Saudi Arabian app that allows men to monitor and control women, including wives and unmarried daughters, with many human rights organizations calling to ban the app, NY Times reported.

The app, Absher, was created in 2015 by the Saudi government and, more specifically, by the National Information Center within the Saudi Ministry of Interior, but hasn’t received much attention until now, according to PC MAG.  Some basic background on Saudi Arabia and how the country functions; Saudi men have what’s known as guardianship laws, which is a decree stating that every woman must have a male guardian to make critical life decisions on her behalf. The guardian can be a father, brother, husband, or son, according to Human Rights Watch.

The app is described in the app store as software that helps you to “safely browse your profile or your family members, or labors working for you, and perform a wide range of eServices online.”

The Absher app also handles some standard government functions such as paying fines, according to a report by the ThisIsInsider.

ThisIsInsider ran a bombshell story entitled: “Saudi Arabia runs a huge, sinister online database of women that men use to track them and stop them from running away.” They recounted a horrifying example where a Saudi woman, Shahad al-Mohaimeed, escaped from her father and family while on vacation in Turkey. As a result, the woman had to steal the family’s smartphones because the Absher app was loaded on them, which allowed them to track her every move.

Several human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), are urging Apple and Google to remove Absher from their app stores.

“We call on Apple and Google to assess the risk of human rights abuses on women, which is facilitated by the App, and mitigate the harm that the App has on women,” Amnesty International said in a statement. “The use of the Absher app to curtail the movement of women once again highlights the disturbing system of discrimination against women under the guardianship system and the need for genuine human rights reforms in the country, rather than just social and economic reforms.”

“Saudi men can also reportedly use Absher to receive real-time text message alerts every time these women enter or leave the country or to prevent these women from leaving the country,” Sen. Ron Wyden wrote.

“By permitting the app in your respective stores, your companies are making it easier for Saudi men to control their family members from the convenience of their smartphones and restrict their movement,” Wyden expressed in a letter addressed to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Cook replied uncertainly when asked about the app during an NPR interview this week. “I haven’t heard about it,” he said. “But obviously we’ll take a look at it if that’s the case.”

Meanwhile, Google told CNN the company would “look into it” when it was questioned about the app.

However, Absher is far from the only app that can track a user on the app store; there are several others which advertise someone’s location in a dangerous manner or are advertised to spy on another person. While many media reports are focusing on the obvious oppression by the app against women, very few are mentioning that Absher and other apps like it could put women in danger. The following screenshot below is not related to Absher; however, its an alleged app going around that allows would-be attackers to track the person who downloads the app.

In which case all sorts of bad things can happen; you can end up kidnapped, killed or raped if you are a woman or child. The scary part is it doesn’t even need to be a malicious app; unfortunately, apps that enable other users to see each others’ location are all a risk.

In 2013, you may find it sickening to know that an app developer suggested making an app called kidnApp where users could opt to be kidnapped.

Motherboard had a now-deleted article on the shocking app which allowed people willing to be kidnapped called Waiters. How that seemed like a good idea, this author will never know, but the app literally allowed users (Waiters) to post an ad to be kidnapped for X amount of time. Although, what if the person known as a “Taker” never let the willing participant go and it turned into a hostage situation? Again, I am unsure how this would ever be a good idea in anyone’s head.

Back in 2017, when Snapchat first released its Snap Map update, which has since been updated, police warned parents of the dangers of the app’s new addition and to turn off Snap Map on their children’s phones. In the UK, Preston Police had this to say on the department’s Facebook page:

For all the snapchat users on here, in the last few days they have released a new update which connects to your GPS, and automatically (unless activated ghost mode) shows where you are on a map to anyone who is on your friends list and posts can possibly seen publically depending on your settings!!

…Obviously this may cause concern for certain users, particularly those who have young children who use the app.

The Telegraph quoted a spokesperson for the National Society for the Protection of Children:

It’s worrying that Snapchat is allowing under 18s to broadcast their location on the app where it can potentially be accessed by everyone in their contact lists.

With public accounts, this will include those who are not known to the user. This highlights why it’s vital children are automatically offered safer accounts on social media to ensure they are protected from unnecessary risks.

The UK Safer Internet Centre said:

It is important to be careful about who you share your location with, as it can allow people to build up a picture of where you live, go to school and spend your time.

Given how specific this new feature is on Snapchat – giving your location to a precise pinpoint on a map – we would encourage users not to share their location, especially with people they don’t know in person.

Snap Map allows users to share their location with friends they choose. However, that’s not the end of the interactive map — snaps you submit to ‘Our Story’ – a collection of snaps submitted from different users throughout the community – can still show up on the map.

In 2017, a woman claimed she was kidnapped and raped in a horrific ordeal after using the Whisper App on her smartphone. She assumed that she was speaking to a female friend when the person on the other end was really an older male, according to the report.

The victim told police that she thought she was talking to a female friend on the Whisper app and invited her friend over to her house. When a car pulled up in the driveway, she approached it and an unknown man, armed with a handgun, jumped out and demanded she gets in the car.

After the victim got into the car, she told Mobile Police that he drove to a vacant house, took her inside and forced the victim to have sex with him.

Whether its Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, Absher or another app — all over the Internet, there are horror stories of bad guys using cell phone location data to cause harm on innocent people. For example, in 2017, shortly after releasing the Snap Map feature, a 25-year-old French man was arrested after he used geolocation information provided by Snapchat to track down the location of his girlfriend and stabbed a man that she was with at the time, France Bleu reported.

More recently, a counter-terrorism officer, Peter Drummond, was accused of sex attacks at 14-year-old’s home using the Snapchat app to track her through the geolocation, The Independent reported.

So how does one avoid being put into a situation like any of these scenarios? The best prevention is to make sure you know what apps you are installing on your device, but even then legitimate apps can use geolocation without your knowledge. So be aware of each app’s permissions and, if needed, disable an app’s access to your phone’s GPS. Be careful when online, use your better judgment and don’t click on links or install unknown applications. Always use common sense and due diligence.

Aaron Kesel writes for Activist Post. Support us at Patreon. Follow us on Minds, Steemit, SoMee, BitChute, Facebook and Twitter. Ready for solutions? Subscribe to our premium newsletter Counter Markets.

Top image credit: Public Radio International

Written by SNLS


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