Apple CEO Tim Cook has pledged to get to the bottom of a Saudi government app hosted on the App Store that was labeled “abhorrent” by a US senator for helping men control where women travel.
While speaking with National Public Radio on Tuesday, Cook was asked about Absher, a benign-seeming government app that has been criticized for features meant to let Saudi men control where women travel.
“I haven’t heard about it,” Cook told NPR. “But obviously we’ll take a look at it if that’s the case.”
Business Insider’s sister site INSIDER has reported extensively on Absher, which pushes alerts to men when women use their passports.
It prompted Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon into writing to Cook and Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, on Monday. He said the app “flies in the face of the type of society you both claim to support and defend.”
“American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy,” Wyden wrote, describing the Saudi system of control over women as “abhorrent.”
Cook’s comments to NPR are the first time Apple has addressed the app after it declined to respond to INSIDER’s repeated requests for comment. Google has not acknowledged repeated requests for comment.
Under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws, women must have a male representative to decide whether they can travel abroad. Absher is the digital manifestation of the system, and it is where men manage much of women’s lives.
The app has been downloaded 4.2 million times on the App Store and 5 million times on Google Play since launching in mid-2015, according to Apptopia.
Wyden wrote his letter in response to two reports by INSIDER on Absher.
The first explained how the app works and how some women in Saudi Arabia were managing to get around it to claim asylum in other countries. The second highlighted criticism of Apple and Google by human-rights campaigners for hosting the app.
Read more: QA: The hurdles and obstacles Saudi female runaways face
“Apple and Google have rules against apps that facilitate threats and harassment,” Human Rights Watch’s Rothna Begum told INSIDER. “Apps like this one can facilitate human-rights abuses, including discrimination against women.”
Yasmine Mohammed, an activist who is an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia, said the companies were “facilitating the most archaic misogyny” and helped the Saudi government enforce “gender apartheid.”
Apple and Google hosted the Saudi crown prince last year
The app raises awkward questions for Apple and Google, two of the biggest players in Silicon Valley, where tech firms have well-established links to Saudi Arabia.
Both firms hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year. The crown prince got a rare tour inside the $5 billion Apple Park campus, in California, which included face time with Cook and other top executives.
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During the visit, Crown Prince Mohammed was on a charm offensive, according to The New York Times.
The aim of the visit was to change Western perspectives on Saudi Arabia as a backward and conservative country dependent on oil money where women are treated as second-class people.
Instead, the crown prince, who is the kingdom’s de facto ruler, wants Americans to see Saudi Arabia as a modern country with extensive investments in growth markets like technology.