Jinri Toutiao is now the single biggest finder of missing people in China. Since incorporating the functionality in February 2016 until mid-December 2017, the news recommendation app helped find 4,126 missing people. And it’s not the only app helping the authorities locate people.

Several of the most popular apps in China have the additional function of helping locate missing persons through localized push notifications. Scores of specialist apps for registering family members young and old or reporting suspected child trafficking have also been appearing in the country’s app stores.

Based on figures provided to TechNode by parent company Bytedance, Jinri Toutiao is making the most headway with location-based notifications. Of the 4,126 people it found, 1,457 were elderly and 383 children. Toutiao sends push notifications to users of its apps within 10 kilometers of where a missing person was last seen. Parent company ByteDance has set up direct working relations with over 60 local police bureau across the country.

Tuanyuan

In May 2016 the Ministry of Public Security launched the Tuanyuan (团圆) system, built by Alibaba Group. It is similar to the AMBER system (America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) in the US, but with alerts pushed to smartphones near the last known or suspected location of the missing person, rather than local broadcasts.

When it was first launched, once a child was reported missing to the police, Tuanyuan initially let the police push notifications with photos and descriptions to all nearby users of just a few apps: Gaode Maps (AutoNavi Maps, another division of Alibaba Group) or people with Sina Weibo accounts. Within the first hour, the notification is pushed to users within one kilometer, two the next hour then three kilometers the next.

Didi Missing person push notification

Didi message about a missing child sent to users near where the child is thought to be 

An update in November 2016 linked the system to many other apps such as QQ, Taobao, Alipay, Baidu Maps, Jinri Toutiao and Didi, pushing alerts to ever more users. According to Xinhua, the Public Security Ministry announced that as of December 31, 2016, in the first seven months of using Tuanyuan, police had sent out alerts for 648 children—72 had been abducted—of whom 611 were found, including one on the very first day, before the platform was even formally launched.

Family Registration Apps

In a similar vein, a range of public-facing apps are available where users can create profiles for family members which can then easily be sent to the police, others can help, for example, a user who has moved to a city far away from his elderly parents to find another user near his parents to call in on them if he suspects they are missing or may need help.

找家人 screen shot

Example of family registration app that allows reporting of missing relatives, Finding Family Members 找家人 (Image credit: 找家人)

Missing Persons Reporting Apps

Authorities have released their own crime reporting apps and the prominence of the child abduction section within them is indicative of the scale of concern over the issue. Statistics on child abduction and trafficking are not available. According to a report by China Newsweek, the Ministry of Public Security stated that between 2009 and 2013 over 11,000 trafficking gangs were broken up and over 54,000 children rescued, while the Ministry of Civil Affairs stated that there are between 1 and 1.5 million homeless children in China, many of whom are thought to be abducted.

The Beijing Police recently joined China’s high tech approach to dealing with issues such as child trafficking, missing persons and now general crime. Its Chaoyang Qunzhong HD app appropriates the slang term “Chaoyang masses” (朝阳群众) which refers to the particularly militant approach to gathering clues by the residents and ‘public security’ volunteers of the capital’s Chaoyang district, aiding the police break high profile crime rings.

After registering with a verified mobile phone number, users can report on several categories, with child trafficking the most prominent. Others are suspected criminal activity, missing elderly, vehicles and lost valuables. Once a user submits a report, with a choice to remain anonymous, they can then keep tabs on the development of the case. A map function allows users to get an overview of what’s happening in a particular area.

The app follows the release in 2016 of the Beijing Traffic Police app which allowed drivers to report traffic incidents. And while neighborhood watch staff and volunteers such as Chaoyang District’s have been an important part of keeping tabs on the population since the early days of the People’s Republic, Chaoyang Qunzhong HD now lets everyone become an informant.

Beyond developing tech for the police to push out alerts, Alibaba has adapted its business messaging app, Dingding, to create an overall package for anti-trafficking police called Dingding Tuanyuan. Now more than 6,000 officers use it as their main method of communication as it has rapidly accelerated their response time for abduction cases.

Child Tracking Watches

Hardware has also been developed for keeping tags on people, especially children. Multiple manufacturers have created smartwatches that parents can put on their children to track and even set up with alerts if a child leaves a predetermined area. Authorities in Guizhou have issued such devices to thousands of school children whose parents have gone to other cities to work and as such tend to be more vulnerable.

Xiaomi kids smartwatch

Xiaomi children’s smartwatch with tracking functionality (Image credit: Xiaomi website)

The country’s growing surveillance camera network with facial recognition will also contribute to the search for missing people. Without statistics being released by the authorities, it remains unclear what progress is being made tackling the issue as a whole, but figures from private companies at least provide a glimpse of the situation.