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AMBER alerts of snatched kids to appear on Facebook (and Bing)

It's the thought that counts, Microsoft

Video Facebook and Microsoft’s Bing have worked together with the US Department of Justice to add AMBER alerts for missing children to their websites.

Youtube Video

These warnings are put out whenever a child is reported to have vanished, and urge people to keep an eye out for the youngster: when the program started, alerts were broadcast only to radio listeners, but hey've since spread to TV, mobile phones, electronic road signs, and emails. The system was created in 1996, and now works across America, with similar schemes around the world.

In Tuesday’s announcement, US Attorney General Eric Holder said Bing search results will now have the option of adding AMBER alerts that pop up if a child in your area goes missing. Facebook will also post localized alerts to desktop and mobile users as they come in.

"Protecting the well-being of our young people is a responsibility that falls to every American. Each of us can help by paying close attention to alerts that come in – and by making sure you are plugged into the AMBER Alert network via social media," said Holder.

"Remember: finding an abducted child and returning him or her to safety depends on a fast response. The more vigilant citizens we have on the look-out, the better our chances of a quick recovery."

A US DoJ study found that 76 per cent of children died within the first three hours after abduction, and it’s usually a couple of hours before the police are even alerted. If more than a day passes, only 11 per cent of kids are found alive.

AMBER supposedly stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response – but, really, it's named after nine-year-old Texan Amber Hagerman, who was snatched and murdered in 1996. A radio station approached the Dallas police about putting out alerts after a kidnapping, and the idea spread to all 50 states. It is now administered by the DoJ and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Getting alerts out quickly in this way does have measurable results. To date 728 children have been returned to their families after an AMBER tip off, with one abductor reportedly releasing his victim once he saw the warning messages getting flashed up.

There are problems with the system, however, chiefly due to the broad nature of the alerts. Anyone who signs up with the scheme gets used to being pinged news of an kidnapping hundreds of miles away, sometimes in the early hours of the morning, and the temptation to opt out is strong. But the partnership with Bing and Facebook could change that.

Facebook’s trust and safety manager Emily Vacher said the firm would be using “targeted search areas” to issue the alerts, and Microsoft promised to add alerts to users detected in the nearby area, and those who make search requests about a particular locale.

These companies have taken commercial localization down to a very fine grain, and applying this to alerts could be very valuable in saving lives. This may be one of the few cases where “won’t somebody please think of the children” is a valid argument. ®

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