Chinese tech giants including Alibaba and Tencent collaborate on alert system to find missing children

The alert system recently gained prominence because it might have helped to intercept the kidnappers of Zhang Zixin.

Photo:Shutterstock.com

“Reunion” is the name of an alert platform to find missing children managed by China’s Ministry of Public Security. It has helped 3,901 missing children find their way home since it went online on May 15, 2016, according to information provided to KrAsia by Alibaba, who co-developed the system.

That accounts for 98% of all 3,987 children, whose information including where and when they went missing, have been distributed via this system so far. It took an average of 78 hours to recover a child, down from 132 hours before the system went online, Alibaba says.

Despite its success rate, the tool is still unknown to many parents and it might have been able to intervene in a recent tragedy.

Ealier this month, a 9-year-old girl called Zhang Zixin was abducted from home in Zhejiang province, East China. After several days during which her kidnappers were still in touch with her father, her body was found by police. Her abductors were reported to have committed suicide after murdering the girl.

There were several situations in which Reunion might have helped, Chinese media later pointed out.

The girl’s father had only reported the case to the police and media after he lost contact with the kidnappers. When a wide-ranging search operation set in, it was already too late.

The editors running a public account called HUGO on WeChat, in an article that went viral, argued that the girl had two chances to be rescued. The first was on July 6 when the couple who kidnapped the girl checked into a hotel under their real names. The second was on July 7 during a ride in a car hailed online by the couple.

HUGO said that information about the missing girl only surfaced on Reunion on July 9, when her father finally made a report to the police, more than one day after he lost contact with the couple.

Had the information been in the system earlier, it would have triggered a missing persons alert sent to all major apps on phones located within a circle of 100 km from where the child went missing, within an hour of when the report was made. After two hours, the radius would have been expanded to 200 km. The circle keeps expanding as time goes by.

People in the vicinity of the girl, such as the ride-hailing driver who transported her and her kidnappers, or the hotel managers who checked the couple in, might have recognized the girl and alerted the police.

The Reunion system now covers nearly 50 apps, Alibaba told KrASIA. They include Didi Chuxing, Baidu, ByteDance’s news app Jinri Toutiao, food delivery app Ele.me, Alipay, and Tencent’s QQ, and can reach over 900 million people. China’s top 10 apps by user count are all on board, with the notable exception of WeChat.

Alibaba did not explain why WeChat is absent in this official alert system. Tencent, when contacted by KrASIA on Thursday, declined to comment on WeChat’s absence from Reunion.

WeChat does have its own mini program allowing police to leverage on its huge user base to find a missing child, but it’s not part of the centralized system.

HUGO’s article quickly got more than 100,000 views. It also urged parents to report missing cases to the police as soon as possible without any hesitation.