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French police end missing persons searches, suggest using Facebook instead

A century-old administrative procedure has been made obsolete by the Internet, according to the Ministry of the Interior

The latest victim of disruption by Internet technologies is a veteran of World War I: the missing persons search.

French police will no longer search for adults reported missing by their families unless there are signs that the person is in danger. The police have abandoned searches in progress and stopped accepting new search requests, according to an announcement on a government website Monday. The changes took effect on Friday.

Such "searches in the interests of the family" were conducted under an administrative procedure almost a century old, introduced to help families separated during the upheavals of World War I to find missing relatives, according to the French Ministry of the Interior.

Requests for the searches have fallen considerably in recent years, and are now most often used to find those behind on alimony payments, the Ministry said in a letter to police chiefs announcing the changes last month. The letter instructed them to refuse further requests, adding: "You can direct people towards social networks on the Internet, which offer interesting possibilities."

Searches will continue for minors, and for those who disappear in worrying circumstances -- for example those with suicidal intent, or victims of a crime -- as they are conducted under a different procedure.

The Ministry attributed the decline in search requests to the rise of the Internet. Social networks, where people feel compelled to publish details of their movements and moods, make it much easier to trace or get back in touch with people after losing contact.

Indeed, there are numerous examples of families reunited through social networks or other online tools -- although sadly many others are still searching.

Most recently, those affected by the tornado that struck the town of Moore, Oklahoma, have turned to Facebook to search for missing family members, with some success.

When even larger natural disasters strike, Google often turns on a service called Person Finder. Created in response to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, it invites families to post details of missing relatives, and crowd-sources sightings or information about them.

Google Person Finder was also used following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, on a number of occasions in 2012 to help victims of floods in the Philippines after a succession of tropical storms and typhoons battered the island of Mindanao, and most recently following the bombing of the Boston marathon.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at [email protected].


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