Facebook launches amber alerts in Australia — a feature it hopes no one will have to use

Facebook launches amber alerts in Australia — a feature it hopes no one will have to use

Australia is only one of a few countries to get Facebook’s new tool — and you’re not going to be able to opt out of it.

FACEBOOK is to launch a new feature in Australia. But the social media giant says it hopes it will never have to be used.

That’s because the new tool will only be available if a child is kidnapped.

From Thursday, Australia will become only one of a small number of countries where Facebook will allow police forces to use news feeds for so-called “amber alerts”.

The term may mean little to most Australians but in the US if a child is kidnapped and police think their life may be in danger they can issue an amber alert on radio, TV and, from 2015, in Facebook feeds.

The media company reckons at least two kids have been reunited with their parents as a direct result of the alerts. One man said an amber alert was the only way he found out he was inadvertently babysitting a snatched two-year-old.

Australian amber alerts will kick off with a call out for information on the cold case of 11-year-old Joanne Ratcliffe who vanished from Adelaide Oval in 1973 following a football match.


Talking to, Facebook’s director of trust and safety, Emily Vacher, said around 200 of the alerts had flashed up on feeds since they were first introduced overseas.

“No matter where a child lives in Australia, from the biggest city to the smallest town, if they go missing police will have access to amber alerts.”

Ms Vacher said she could vouch for the importance of information about a missing, possibly snatched, child getting out to the public — she used to be an FBI agent in Baltimore specialising in crimes against kids.

“Speed is critical. Research indicates that of those children who are going to be killed, 75 per cent will be killed in the first four hours,” she said.

“Getting information out while the child is in a car and people know the licence plate and see it, that can save someone’s life.”

If a suspected child abduction occurs, police can contact Facebook to send a message to users within a roughly 200km radius of where the kidnapping took place.

“There’s a criteria that needs to be met which is all decided by police,” said Ms Vacher.

“The child has to be under 18, this is not for adults, and the police have to have a reasonable belief the child would be at risk of death or bodily injury.”

On news feeds, the amber alert will pop up as the first or second story with an image of the child, brief details and a link to the police page. Sharing the post will increase its reach further.

It’s not the first time in Australia that Facebook has been used by the police to alert people to kidnapped kids.


“What makes our system more effective is that it’s not relying on someone liking that page to see the amber alert.”

Privacy advocates may want to look away now because Ms Vacher said there were a myriad of ways Facebook could find out where you are to decide if you should get the alert.

Setting a home town is an obvious one. But even if you turn off location services they can still find you.

“I’m a visitor to Sydney and today I checked in to the Sydney Opera House so if a child went missing here I have provided a signal to Facebook that I’m likely in the search area,” she said.

There’s no opting out of the alerts either, so if you’re not bothered you either have to scroll past or close them down.

But Ms Vacher said they shouldn’t become a nuisance.

“They will be very rare. If you see an amber alert it means a child is at high risk and they may be in your area.

“Most people in the US only see two or three a year, in some of the countries they have done a couple of alerts, in some none.”


Facebook said the service has proved its worth.

Last year, four-year-old Rebecca Lewis was abducted in Florida and an amber alert was subsequently issued in five states.

“A woman was on her lunch break, scrolling through her feed, saw the alert, and looked up and saw the child. She called law enforcement and they rescued the child,” said Ms Vacher.

In another case a man scrolling through Facebook realised he was unknowingly babysitting an abducted child.

In April 2015, the sister of Seattle man John Truong was asked by his sister to look after her boyfriend’s son, a child he’d never seen before.

But police said the two-year-old had actually been forcefully taken from his mother who had been bound and locked in a cupboard

“I’m eating my breakfast, I’m checking my Facebook, all of a sudden I see this amber alert for this child and it looks like this child is in my bed, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God! What’s going on?’,” Mr Troung told Washington news station KOMO.

Australia is the 13th country to get Facebook’s amber alerts following the US, Canada and the UK and some smaller nations including Luxembourg, Malta and Jamaica.

“Getting this information into the hands of the community where kids go missing is critical to getting the child home,” said Ms Vacher.

“It’s the one Facebook product we hope will never be used but if a child is abducted it’s another tool for law enforcement”.

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