Today is International Missing Children's Day, a day to celebrate efforts that have led to the recovery of missing children, reflect on the plight of those who are still missing, and dedicate ourselves anew to helping bring those children home.
What started as a local effort in one country has spread across four continents, with events and activities in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Romania, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. At Facebook, we always work to create a safe environment for people using it and, wherever you live, Missing Children's Day serves to remind us all to make child protection a priority.
As a place where teens and adults across the globe come together, we at Facebook have a unique perspective on the work law enforcement officers do every day to find missing children. The Internet plays a larger role in all of our lives and, as a result, Facebook plays a small part in supporting efforts to track down missing kids.
Today, we want to thank those officers for their tireless work, and recognize a couple of them by sharing stories of their successes using the Internet to help find missing children. We haven't provided identifying details about the two individual officers who shared their stories with us because the nature of the jobs doesn't allow us to identify them by name.
A detective in the child exploitation unit of a large law enforcement agency in Virginia explains how he worked with us to find one girl who had run away from home in February this year:
Detectives routinely handle this type of issue—almost a million American kids run away each year. But the girl in this case was unusually young and it was the second time she'd been missing. Previously, she had communicated with family and friends, at least reassuring them that she was relatively safe and had Internet access. After three weeks, she was spotted by the parent of a friend, who returned her home.
This time, she had been gone longer and hadn't communicated with family and friends. Then she created a Facebook page. Because of the special circumstances, including her age, we were able to get a subpoena, which allowed Facebook to disclose the Internet address of the computer she was using.
Despite a technical glitch at the Internet service provider that prevented them from pinpointing the actual computer in use, they were able to lead us to an apartment building. A local officer was sent to search the area. The girl's parents contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which resulted in hundreds of flyers being posted in the area. The girl was found shortly afterward.
Without Facebook, my job would be tremendously more difficult. I honestly don't know how I would do this work without it.
In another case in Connecticut in 2009, officials turned to Facebook to track down two 15-year-old girls who had run away together:
One was definitely not a typical runaway: She had no problems at school, no police contact, a functional and supportive family life, and plenty of friends. Her parents were understandably panicked when she disappeared one day not long before Thanksgiving.
Officers followed standard procedures, sending out statewide and national alerts, and interviewing friends and family. But nobody knew where the girls were headed and they had turned off their mobile phones. The case was stalled.
The girls were in New York, out on the street, playing guitar and asking for money. They were vulnerable and unaware of how much danger they could be in. One of the girls then posted an update to her Facebook page, and that proved to be the key piece of information that was needed to find her.
Facebook responded within an hour, despite the fact that it was after 10 p.m., and we obtained the name of the Internet service provider the girl had used to access Facebook. As soon as the provider opened the following day, we were able to trace the activity to a rooming house in New York City. We asked the NYPD to look for the girls, and officers arrived just as they were leaving the building. The girls were returned to their families in time for Thanksgiving.
Facebook was instrumental in answering our e-mail right away. Their actions reflect favorably upon the Facebook community and foster positive relations with law enforcement.
While these stories represent a tiny fraction of the work done by law enforcement agencies every day, they show the ways police are adapting to technology to make their job of protecting the public easier. Given our commitment to protecting user data we only disclose information that is legally required and we can't accommodate every information request. When the appropriate requirements are met and circumstances dictate, we can provide information that may help in an investigation and we are pleased to do so.
Let's remember, today, to be thankful for the children who are safe, and for the hardworking men and women in law enforcement and elsewhere who are dedicated to bringing home those who are not.
Joe is Facebook's chief security officer.