Helping missing persons find their way
For our team of passionate cyber security experts, using their curiosity, creativity and problem-solving skills to locate hidden information is all in a day’s work. For one professional, it’s also a hobby. Gerard helps find data about missing persons.
I’ve been defending organisations as a Cyber Security Analyst for Quorum Cyber for just over a year now and have already learned so much in this fast-moving industry. Having worked as a Fraud Investigator for several years and needing a change of direction, my skills naturally led me into cyber security. I enjoy finding hidden clues and piecing them together to help protect our customers around the world. Every day brings different challenges.
Volunteering for Trace Labs
A couple of years ago I learnt that I could put my investigative skills to good use in another way too, for a not-for-profit organisation called Trace Labs. Established by a computer security professional and tracker for Search & Rescue in Canada, Trace Labs aims to improve location information on missing persons to ultimately reunite them with their families – if that’s what the people involved want, of course.
Although thousands of people go missing every year, police departments just don’t have the resources and time to search for every single person, or even to find important information which might eventually lead to locating them. Sometimes they ask the public for help.
So, Trace Labs brings people from around the world together to gather and collate publicly-available digital information, otherwise known as open-source intelligence (OSINT) information, which the organisation then hands over to the relevant law enforcement agencies. Even if they had the time, the police are not necessarily trained in OSINT, so some details could be new and crucial for a case. Even trivial information can help save police time and lead them to tracking down a missing person.
Search Party Capture the Flags
To make the search effort more team-oriented and to help us train each other to improve our skills, Trace Labs runs events they call Search Party Capture the Flags, or Search Party CTFs. Teams of up to four, who could be spread around the globe, race against the clock for a set time – usually 4 hours – to collect as much valuable and verifiable information about the missing person as they can. We get a briefing an hour before the start and only once the timer starts do we get the individual files released on the platform. It can be a link to a missing persons page or a Facebook page set up by family to gather information – these are the most common starting points. The rest is up to us.
Judges assess teams on how useful the information they have found could be for the police. Any day-last-seen data, such as who they were with or where they were heading, and which is often the most helpful in finding someone, is the most valued.
At the end, the Black Badge is presented to the members of the team which finished with the most points, and the Silver Badge and Bronze Badge are handed to those in second or third place.
Competitive and collaborative
Search Party CTFs attract upwards of 100 teams, and together we have a much better chance of gathering useful information to help the authorities. Obviously, we do rely on the missing person having some kind of digital footprint, so we can’t investigate anyone who vanished 40 years ago. There are strict rules too; we must not engage with anybody or make comments or ‘like’ social media posts while we’re searching because such actions muddy the digital evidence or interfere with the case.
The format has proven to be a big success. So far Trace Labs, which has a community of over 10,000 people worldwide, has run 35 search parties and assisted with 320 cases.
Why not get involved?
Although I have cyber security skills and am an experienced investigator, anyone could get involved without these skills to help find missing people. All you need is curiosity and persistence, and you can learn the rest from other volunteers.
I’ll volunteer my time at the next event in August.
If you would like to find out more and learn what’s involved, visit the Trace Labs website.