AirBnB contacted all hosts in Paris asking if they could take in those stranded in the city. Facebook let users alert their friends they were safe. Google offered free calls to Paris via Hangouts, as did Skype, Verizon and Sprint. Uber turned off surge pricing in the city for the weekend, despite initial reports to the contrary. Twitter helped people find a place to stay with the hashtag #PorteOuverte and kept the rest of the world informed.
The tech companies did what many businesses did during a time of emergency: They lent a helping hand. But Friday’s events show how the industry is uniquely positioned to do so more quickly and adroitly due to the nature of their services.
AirBnB and Twitter provided shelter efficiently, opening doors that may not have been before their services existed. Facebook’s Safety Check let us know friends were accounted for within hours. Google Hangouts and Skype allowed loved ones to speak immediately. Uber helped people get where they needed to go.
Most of these services were not new. They had been tested before in Hurricane Sandy or earthquakes. Some even emerged from past failures. But it cannot be contested that they offered a needed support during a time of confusion and despair as the world learned of brutal slayings of 132 people, mostly young and out having fun.
The caveat is that the same technologies that allow the survivors of an attack to coordinate are some of the same tools abused by terror groups. The same networks that help the world show solidarity with France are the same ones that ISIS, the group that has claimed responsibility for the attacks, reportedly uses to recruit and plot.
Inevitably in the coming weeks and months, the world will evaluate the role technology companies played in the terror attacks in Paris. The attacks come just months after France adopted a sweeping surveillance bill. New questions will emerge about how to maintain a balance between privacy and national security, and where tech falls in that equation. In those conversations, the industry’s involvement in the response to the attacks should not be forgotten.