In 1997, radio broadcasters here in North Texas embraced technology and partnered with law enforcement to create an early warning system for missing children, called the Amber Alert system, named for 9-year-old Amber Hagerman, who was abducted while riding her bike in Arlington in 1996.
That system evolved to include television and highway alerts, and it now includes mobile phones and web browsers. Today, millions of Americans are notified about missing children in real time, right from their screens.
Because people came together to use technology to address a problem, nearly 1,000 children have been safely reunited with their families across the U.S. as a direct result of an Amber Alert.
Seventeen years ago, when I was an FBI agent newly assigned to work crimes against children cases, I traveled to Dallas to attend the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center’s annual Crimes Against Children Conference for the first time. The conference was my introduction to the incredible community of people who are committed to protecting the world’s most valuable resource: our children.
I remember walking through the halls of the event and in every session just being so impressed and sometimes overwhelmed. I was completely new to the concept of using technology to solve crimes.
Many years have passed since that day and over the next decade, I had the opportunity to serve as a member of the FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team and find the missing children who were the subject of Amber Alerts. I learned how to effectively use technology to help solve cases, protect children and bring justice to those who harm them.
And I’ll have the privilege to speak to the nearly 5,000 attendees at the 30th annual Crimes Against Children conference on Monday. I’ll have the opportunity to tell law enforcement officers, child safety advocates, prosecutors and all of the child protection professionals assembled in Dallas that technology is their ally. Instead of fearing it, they should embrace it and use it to make our world a safer place.
Facebook has been proud to join this effort by partnering with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to launch an Amber Alert program to target information, including photographs of the missing child, to people who are in the search area for the missing child and who might be in the best position to help. The program is now available on Facebook in 18 countries.
We’ve seen some incredible success stories, including in October 2016 when Kaytlin Brown, a medical technician at Baptist East hospital in Memphis, Tenn., recognized a 4-year-old girl abducted from Lakeland, Fla., while she was checking her Facebook page on her phone during her lunch break. Her quick action is the reason the child was safely reunited with her family.
Technology companies continue to pioneer ways to help solve crimes and save lives. In May, Facebook hosted the third annual Child Safety Hackathon, where more than 100 engineers and data scientists from more than a dozen companies came together to develop technical solutions to help combat child sex trafficking. And organizations like Thorn are bringing nonprofits and companies together to help get this new technology into the hands of law enforcement.
There is also new technology emerging that has the potential to revolutionize police work and break cold cases wide open.
Genetic genealogy has proven to be a revolutionary tool. In April, after decades without a breakthrough, the Golden State Killer case was solved with the help of new DNA technology, genealogy and an open-source ancestry site.
These breakthroughs are nothing short of remarkable, and all the more so because the technology that led to them wasn’t pioneered by law enforcement. It was created by engineers, scientists, genealogists and people who just want to help protect children.
But the fact is that technology alone is never enough. It takes the tireless efforts of law enforcement to keep these cases open, to pursue these partnerships, and to recognize the potential of new innovations to revive old evidence.
They say it takes a village to raise a child; it also takes a village to protect one.
Emily Vacher is director of trust and safety for Facebook. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.