The future of Facebook's 'Safety Check' is a complicated ethical dilemma

Last year, Facebook introduced a tool called “Safety Check,” which gave people a simple and easy way to check on their loved ones during a crisis or disaster.

Facebook built the first version of this Safety Check tool after the massive tsunami hit Japan in March 2011. And since October 2014, when the official tool launched, Facebook had only enabled “Safety Check” five times.

But that was prior to this past week. Facebook has activated the tool twice since: after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday, and after a deadly bombing in Nigeria on Tuesday.

More than 4.1 million people used Facebook’s Safety Check tool after the Paris attacks, and Facebook says it plans to “activate Safety Check for more human disasters,” according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

For a long time, Facebook refused to activate Safety Check for “something other than a natural disaster,” according to the company’s VP of growth Alex Schultz. But amidst criticism that Facebook would activate this tool at some times and not others — it didn’t activate the tool after last week’s bombings in Lebanon, for example — Facebook says it now intends to use its Safety Check more often moving forward.

While more Safety Checks might appease people that want to know the status and condition of their loved ones, the rise of this particular Facebook tool is a complicated issue.

There’s a reason Facebook refused to enable Safety Check for non-natural disasters for so long.

“During an ongoing crisis, like war or epidemic, Safety Check in its current form is not that useful for people because there isn’t a clear start or end point, and unfortunately, it’s impossible to know when someone is truly safe,” Schultz said in a Facebook post.

Besides the usefulness issue during ongoing crisis — which is a big issue that needs to be addressed — there are other implications. What happens if someone doesn’t post their safety status on Facebook? What happens if Facebook goes down when a crisis occurs? Is Facebook somehow responsible for different kinds of crises and emergency responses that might occur? What’s the criteria for a “Safety Check” anyway? Facebook has yet to answer these questions. We’ve reached out to the company.

Facebook wants every single person on earth to use its service, and the rise of Safety Check will help Facebook accomplish that goal. But Facebook still needs to figure out two things: how to make Safety Check more useful during ongoing global crises, and which crises should merit a Safety Check in the first place.

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