U.S. Facebook users will now be able to receive AMBER Alerts — the notifications issued when a child is abducted — on the social network, the result of a new partnership with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Details of the new program were made available Wednesday morning, one day before the fifteenth anniversary of the abduction and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, whom the alert system was named after.
Facebook has set up 53 AMBER Alert pages — one for each of the 50 states, along with pages for the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands. Interested Facebook users will be able to sign up for alerts pertinent to their individual states. The notifications, which will appear on news feeds as they’re issued, can also be shared with users’ Facebook friends.
Prior to the creation of these pages, certain police departments already used the social network to push out notifications about AMBER Alerts, which are typically issued in what law enforcement officials deem the most serious child abduction cases. Col. Steven Flaherty — superintendent of the Virginia State Police — spoke about one of these instances during the press event announcing the new Facebook alert system, which was held in Alexandria, Virginia this morning.
Early last month, the Virginia State Police posted an AMBER alert for 12-year-old Brittany Mae Smith and suspected abductor Jeffrey Easley on its Facebook page, after the girl’s mother was found murdered. The department kept updating its page with information about the case as it chased leads throughout the country, and days later, Smith and Easley were found alive in San Francisco after a woman recognized them.
“It really doesn’t take a seasoned investigator to tell you what the odds are of a 12-year-old girl to be safely returned after being missing for five days,” Flaherty said, adding that social media had allowed the department to pursue the case outside its borders. He, along with others involved with implementing the new Facebook system, believes the AMBER Alert pages will enhance law enforcement’s ability to find missing children.
The Facebook AMBER Alert pages are part of an opt-in system, which means users will not receive banner notifications about AMBER alerts.
“We are very sensitive to people considering this as spam, and our message to the public has been: One, you are not going to be inundated,” said Ernie Allen, president and CEO for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Allen said that the program is geographically targeted, which means news about a child missing in Seattle will not appear to those who have signed up for Virginia’s AMBER Alert page. However, if there is a hint that a child or abductor may be in another area, then the alerts may be issued in more than one state.
Though this particular initiative is U.S.-focused, there are hopes for the effort to go global. Allen said other countries are working with Facebook to create similar programs. According to the official AMBER Alert website, 525 missing children have been recovered via the system.