By andy Marso
ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Facebook users can now get AMBER Alerts about missing children on their news feeds — but only if they ask for them.
Facebook announced Wednesday at a news conference it was partnering with the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to offer the alerts.
With 500 million-plus Facebook users worldwide, the new system potentially expands the alerts’ reach exponentially. But Facebook will not automatically send AMBER Alert notifications. The alerts will only appear on users’ news feeds if they search out their state’s new AMBER Alert Facebook page and subscribe to it by clicking the gray “Like” button at the top.
“I think the sensitivity has been, it’s a better way to do it as an opt-in than to do it automatically and offend a bunch of people who say, ‘We don’t want to receive all of this,'” the center’s president, Ernie Allen, said. “What we hope to do, through education and through the kind of effort that Facebook can bring to this, is to create a sense where millions of people will want to receive these and will want to help.”
By the close of business Wednesday, 351 people had joined Maryland’s AMBER Alert Facebook page.
Carla Proudfoot, director of the Maryland Center for Missing Children — a division of the State Police — said in a phone interview that the new Facebook AMBER alerts would increase the overall program’s effectiveness.
“The more places we can get it out, the better,” she said. “So I think it’s going to benefit Maryland.”
Amber Hagerman, the AMBER Alert system’s namesake, was abducted Jan. 13, 1996, in Arlington, Texas, when she was 9 years old. She was found dead four days later and her murderer was never caught.
The AMBER Alert system was founded in Texas a year after Amber’s death. It went national in 2003 as “America’s Missing: Broadcasting Emergency Response.” Since then, Allen said his organization had discussed how to strike a balance between providing information on missing children and being intrusive.
The bulletins are distributed automatically by radio and television stations through the Emergency Alert System. But they’ve been offered on newer media — like e-mail, text messages and now Facebook — on an opt-in basis.
Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said getting Facebook involved in the AMBER Alert system on a voluntary basis was a plus.
“There are thousands of people out there who want to stay posted on this kind of information and will, we believe, sign up for that,” Shipley said. “It’s just another avenue for us to use and we certainly believe it will be a positive one.”
Chris Sonderby, Facebook’s Lead Security and Investigations Counsel, unveiled the Web site’s new AMBER Alert system Saturday. He said the company would promote it with 50 million free ads throughout the site.
“(We) made this an opt-in feature, but once you opt-in, again, it allows you to spread this to all of your network of friends,” Sonderby said. “That’s an incredibly powerful mechanism to share this information.”
Col. Steven Flaherty, Virginia State Police superintendent, said “friend-to-friend” sharing had helped spread the word when AMBER Alerts were posted on the State Police’s Facebook page, which has over 24,600 followers.
He said he was glad the new Facebook alerts were voluntary rather than automatic.
“I think we get the best bang for our buck if we have people who are interested in getting this information,” Flaherty said. “In my humble opinion, if we were running it as just another banner (ad), I’m not sure it would have the impact. We’re very guarded in what we put out on the AMBER Alert system and I think we have to be kind of guarded in this to a degree as well.”
Reports of missing children must meet several criteria before an alert is issued. There must be a confirmed abduction of a child under 17, the child must be at risk of serious injury or death and there must be descriptive information of the child, the captor or the captor’s vehicle to provide to the public.
Maryland has had 93 requests for AMBER Alerts and issued 27 alerts since the state joined the system in 2003, according to State Police statistics. In 25 of those 27 cases, the victim was found alive.
There were three AMBER Alerts issued in Maryland in 2010. Hannah Lynn Harrigan, 4, was abducted from Elkton on Feb. 12 and was found unharmed in Delaware the next day. Karina Elizabeth Garcia, 11, was abducted from Capitol Heights on Feb. 13 and was found in Tennessee the next day. In both cases the abductors were arrested.
Aaron Gamez, 2, was abducted by his mother’s ex-boyfriend on July 3 and the AMBER Alert was cancelled when he was dropped off safely at a family member’s house later that day.