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Facebook helps SAPS find missing children

A new AMBER alert system, which exists in the US to provide alerts to people in the area of a missing child, will now be available to South African Facebook users within 160km of where a child has gone missing. BRYAN TURNER reports

In an initiative to strengthen the combating of child trafficking, SAPS has partnered with Facebook to use the social network to help find missing children. The AMBER alert system started in 1996 when 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was abducted in Texas, and over 1,000 children have been saved as a result of the system. While AMBER now stands for America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response, the name will remain the same in South Africa.

At a press conference in Sandton today, Facebook and SAPS briefed the media on how AMBER alerts will work through Facebook, who qualifies for it, and who will get the alerts.

In the United States, it works by pushing an emergency SMS notification to the public about the details of the missing child. It goes out to members of the public who are within the immediate search area as soon as the child is reported missing. In South Africa, this notification will be pushed to devices that are using the Facebook app within the search area.

Not every child will qualify for the AMBER alert system though, so don’t expect many of these notifications.

“One of the most important things that’s necessary to bring a missing child is a photo of that missing child,” said Emily Vacher, director of trust and safety at Facebook. “That’s why that photo will be prominently displayed in the newsfeed of people who are actually in the search area. These alerts will occur very, very rarely, while every missing child is, of course, important. This is a special tool that’s used in special circumstances. If you see one, however, it’s very important to know that you may actually be in a position to help find a missing child.”

Facebook announced the following criteria for who qualifies for AMBER alerts:

  • The abduction is of a child age 17 or younger;
  • There is a reasonable belief that the child has been abducted
  • The South African Police Service believes the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily harm.
  • There is enough descriptive information about the victim and suspected abduction for law enforcement to issue an Amber Alert to assist in recovering the child.
  • South Africa is the first country in Africa to have AMBER alerts through Facebook.

“We really value the partnership that we have with the South African Police Service,” said Emilar Ghandi, head of public policy for the SADC region at Facebook. “We learn, we connect, we listen from you, to continue to work together with you. We listen to how we can better improve our services and we hope that this partnership will continue.

“South Africa is the first in the region to get this service. It truly shows that at Facebook, Africa is important to us. We genuinely care about South Africa and we hope to continue this throughout the region.”

National Police Commissioner General Khehla Sitole welcomed the partnership between technology and keeping children safe.

“The prevention of kidnapping and abduction of our children, for various purposes including sexual offences, parental disputes, or human trafficking, requires the mobilisation of South Africans,” he said. “The operations manager for Facebook head office in Ireland approached SAPS to offer support to our police service, which is highly appreciated because it will make a great impact. The AMBER alert system will be an additional measure to immediately find missing children in South Africa. I think, proactively, it’s already instrumental and very encouraging.”

Facebook made it clear that one does not report missing children through the Facebook app, but rather through a clear description and pictures provided to a police station. SAPS also made it clear that there is no waiting period to report a missing person or child, and police stations across South Africa have been instructed not to turn away any person who comes in to make a missing persons report. The popular movie cliche of having to wait 24 hours to report a missing child is a myth.

To participate in this initiative, one needs to have the Facebook app on one’s phone, with an active Internet connection and location services enabled to identify if one falls in the 160km search area.

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