Facebook Safety Check develops glitch, checks on people far from Lahore blast

People as far away as the the UK and the US received notifications

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Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, on Oct. 29, 2015.

Credit: Martyn Williams

Facebook designed its Safety Check to find out about people who are close to an affected area during an emergency.

On Sunday, after a terror attack in Lahore, Pakistan, killed around 65 and injured over 300 people, a bug in the tool made it contact people in locations like the U.S., India and U.K. far removed from the explosion, causing considerable anxiety.

Some users got text messages on their mobile phones that simply asked: “Facebook Safety Check: Are you affected by the explosion? Reply SAFE if you’re ok or OUT if you aren’t in the area,” without mentioning where the explosion had happened. Others got more specific messages asking them if they were in the area affected by the explosion in Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park in Lahore. Facebook later apologized for the error by the tool.

“We activated Safety Check today in Lahore, Pakistan, after a bombing that took place there,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement. “Unfortunately, many people not affected by the crisis received a notification asking if they were okay. We worked to resolve the issue and we apologize to anyone who mistakenly received the notification.”

Facebook did not specify what had caused the bug and how many people were affected. It said in a post on the social networking site  that many people that were not affected by the crisis received a notification asking if they were okay. “This kind of bug is counter to our intent,” it added.

The social network has activated several times the Safety Check feature, which checks with people it detects are in the vicinity of a disaster whether they are safe or not, and alerts friends. It was most recently activated last week after deadly terror attacks in Brussels. In 2015, more than 950 million people are said to have received a notification that a friend or loved one was safe in a crisis.

The apparent geolocation error in the Safety Check tool on Sunday is not the first time it has attracted controversy. After Facebook turned on the tool after the terror attack in Paris in November last year, the first time it was being used after an emergency other than a natural disaster, the company was criticized for not using it after earlier terror attacks in Beirut and other locations.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg assured users in November that the tool would be turned on more frequently in the future during human disasters. “Many people have rightfully asked why we turned on Safety Check for Paris but not for bombings in Beirut and other places,” Zuckerberg wrote at the time on his Facebook page.