Since it launched 21 years ago after the tragic death of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman in Arlington, Texas, the AMBER Alert system has helped families and authorities successfully recover 868 missing children.
But more than 460,000 children — runaways, abductions, lost or injured kids — go missing every year in the U.S., plus many more around the world. Facebook, whose user base is now nearly 2 billion-strong, wants to leverage its expansive network to help get more children back home.
In honor of International Missing Children's Day on Thursday, Facebook released a new video explaining how its AMBER Alerts feature, which first launched in the U.S. in 2015, can help amplify the right information about missing children to the right people at the right time.
"A couple of years ago, something extraordinary was happening on Facebook and it caught our attention," said Emily Vacher, Director of Trust & Safety on Facebook's Security team. "People were using our platform to encourage their friends and families to help find missing children. They would share information and pictures with messages of hope, and the Facebook community responded to the call for help."
Vacher, who was previously an FBI agent on the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team, explained that those organic efforts inspired the company to develop a more systematic way to help find missing children.
As a result, they partnered with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, launching the social network's AMBER Alert feature for the first time.
The tool is now available in 12 countries: the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, South Korea, the UK, Greece, Malaysia, Taiwan, Mexico, Malta, and — as of this month — Jamaica and Luxembourg.
If you're in a designated search area where local law enforcement has activated an AMBER Alert, it will show up in your News Feed. The alert includes a photo of the missing child, a description, the location of the abduction, and any other pertinent, available information.
Users can share the alert with friends to spread awareness, tapping into that organic desire to help that Vacher described. Facebook urges people who see the missing child or have relevant information to immediately call 911 or another number listed in the alert, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, or local police.
"The AMBER Alert Facebook product is invaluable to the international community, because it provides a new tool," said Maura Harty, president and CEO of the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, in the new video. "It galvanizes a community. It's not theoretical, it's not very far away — it's in your neighborhood.
"I'd say it's nothing short of awesome," Harty added.
If you're wondering why you might not have seen an AMBER Alert on Facebook before, that probably has more to do with how seldom AMBER Alerts are sent out. Of the reported cases of missing children in the U.S., about .3 percent get an AMBER Alert. That's because they're only useful if law enforcement agencies have enough information to issue one and get people to help effectively.
But Vacher said that every child deserves a safe childhood, and technology has changed how we look for abducted children. As a direct result of the Facebook AMBER Alerts program, "several children" have been rescued.
"In the beginning, this information was shared weeks or months after a child disappeared on the back of a milk carton," she said. "Look how far we've come."