TraceLabs — Searching for our missing persons with OSINT!

Aug 27, 2018 · 5 min read
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TraceLabs is a non-profit organisation founded by Robert Sell. Robert has volunteered as a search & rescue member for over nine years and has experience as an IT manager so he certainly knows his way around technology and how we can use this technology to help find information on people who go missing as this is a problem families will have to deal with every day all over the world.

The goal of TraceLabs isn’t to go out and really find missing persons, but it is to use open source intelligence (OSINT) to find information on them so that they can pass this onto the police or relevant people in order to help them on their search. If using OSINT leads them to a new location of someone who has ran away from home for instance, then that would be ideal and they could send that over for them to be quickly found. This isn’t usually the case though, they will usually find social media accounts, email addresses, phone numbers, all the things many people rely on daily. A phone number found online could not be known by family and the police, but this could lead straight to them, so it is important that while people are out there searching in the real world, we are searching just as hard here in the virtual world.

DEFCON Toronto

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It was at DEFCON Toronto that kicked things off. While TraceLabs never stops working, they also do Capture The Flag’s (CTF’s) which typically are like games where people have to find a bit of information known as a “flag” and upload this to get points. The CTF’s done by TraceLabs are different though because there is no specific answer for people to get, their job is to be finding information that is new to everyone and that could lead to a location on the missing persons. TraceLabs has a point system so when someone finds a particular bit of information, that will be worth a certain amount of points, which are then added up for each person to a scoreboard.

DEFCON Toronto was the first OSINT CTF for missing persons, it changed everything because no one had ever seen anything like it. This CTF had a total of sixty-five teams with two to five people in each. When the CTF started, people could pick anyone from a list of over one hundred missing persons and then start to find information about them ranging from social media to friends and family. They would then upload this information to the CTF platform so that a judge could verify the information and give the person points. At the end of the event, all the information that was submitted and verified was sent to the relevant authorities which resulted in two missing persons being found. In a game where people are normally rewarded with money or other prizes, two people were found which I think is much more rewarding. To add to this, the top three teams points wise got a years subscription on Hunchly which can be used to manage and document your investigations.

It didn’t end here, while there was the CTF and people were found, the event also gave speakers a chance to teach people more about OSINT so that in future events and in any other investigations people do, they will be more effective. Everyone could also learn from each other as the top teams, among others were sharing methods on how they found certain information so everyone was learning new things from the event.


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This was a much bigger event in general. Due to this, many were involved with other talks and CTF’s leaving no where near the amount of people there was in the first CTF. This was fine as TraceLabs is still testing for how the CTF’s can be done in the best way for them. The Vegas event was unlike the first because in the first, people uploaded information to the website privately. However, in Vegas, we used Slack. Specific channels were made for each missing person, then when the event started, people could find information and post it in those channels. This was totally new because for one, everyone can see what others find now and work with each other, this also helps because it means people won’t be posting the same information all the time, it was more efficient. Also, due to there not being too many participating, it wasn’t too difficult for the judges to keep up while verifying the information being posted.

Despite not having as many people participating, a lot of information was found from this event which was sent to the authorities, it also gave everyone the chance to work together which meant a lot of people learned new things and gave them a feel of what TraceLabs does all the time which made some stick around to do more general work, not just when there is a CTF.

The prizes for this CTF were next level from the last one. Once again, the top three people got a year subscription on Hunchly. The person in first place got to have a one on one talk with the incredible Julie Clegg who truly is a world class investigator and has been for over twenty years.

Her skills have been showcased on the TV show Hunted and she has a podcast where she speaks to a wide range of extremely talented people. Julie offering her time for this shows the kind of reach TraceLabs has.

The Future

What is shown above is just the start, there will be more CTF’s coming with great prizes and the possibility of helping to find missing persons which is truly rewarding. It is a chance to put those OSINT skills to good use and well as learning new ones. It is a great way to meet more like-minded people who you will be able to learn from, but hopefully also teach them things. TraceLabs plans to have events at least once a month and is always looking for companies who want to promote their products by offering them as prizes in the CTF’s.

If you’d like to be a part of this incredible organisation, all you have to do is go to and register. This will give you access to things on the website, but mainly you will get an invite by email to join the TraceLabs Slack where there are channels made for missing persons operations that you can look at and add to if you find more information. You will be able to work as a team with the other members there which will help to meet new people who will be able to help you learn and develop your skills.

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