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Tracing missing people through open source intelligence

Missing persons represent a serious and ongoing challenge to governments around the world. The size and complexity of this challenge prompted Opencast to join a wider team to contribute to improving outcomes of cases of missing persons through the use of open source intelligence. Rosalind Grindrod, our Head of Security Services, reports.

People go missing as a result of multiple and complex circumstances. You might think that the label applies only to people who willingly decide to cut off contact with their loved ones or you might imagine that this is only about those who are kidnapped or killed as a result of serial offenders or other crimes gone wrong. But this is only a small piece of the puzzle.

People go missing because of natural disasters, war and asymmetrical conflicts, acts of terror, state-sponsored violence, and when trying to reach safe havens to request asylum or seek for a better life.

In 2022, the International Federation of the Red Cross – the most important non-profit organisation focused on protection from abuses of human rights and redress, particularly in conflicts, issued a statement of alarm at the continued increase in the numbers of missing persons in the world to the United Nations. In it, they lay out the complexity and challenges involved in finding missing persons but also the multi-level consequences of people going missing, including family separations and the profound harm done to children when their family members go missing.

Volunteering our time for something like this is in line with Opencast’s social impact strategy: this is one way that highly specialist businesses like ours can use their capabilities for the good of people and planet. It’s also a great opportunity for our people to flex their skills in a different space than they usually work in.

Ros Grindrod headshot
Rosalind Grindrod

What is OSINT?

Open source intelligence (OSINT) involves extracting valuable information from publicly accessible sources such as social media platforms, websites, forums and more. This information, often scattered across the vast expanses of the internet, can be used to paint a comprehensive picture of a target, be it an individual, a company, or even a nation.

OSINT is a vital component of cybersecurity, aiding in threat intelligence, incident response, and vulnerability assessments. Its application extends beyond the realms of cybersecurity, finding utility in investigative journalism, law enforcement, and business intelligence.

With the ever-growing volume of data available online, OSINT has become an indispensable tool for cybersecurity professionals and hacking groups alike. By leveraging OSINT, analysts can uncover potential security threats, identify vulnerabilities, and stay one step ahead of cybercriminals.

However, OSINT is not just limited to the bounds of digital defences; OSINT can be leveraged to support law enforcement in both active and cold cases. It’s also useful in aiding investigations into human rights abuses, including environmental crimes. For example, OSINT is used by the open-source investigative unit group Bellincat, credited with supporting government agencies in identifying the perpetrators of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018.

Tracelabs global ‘capture the flag’ events

Tracelabs, a non-profit organisation dedicated to crowdsourcing the search for missing persons, has stepped into the cybersecurity arena with its innovative approach to fostering learning and collaboration. One of Tracelabs' standout initiatives is its global ‘capture the flag’ (CTF) event that brings together OSINT enthusiasts from around the world.

A CTF competition involves participants solving a series of challenges, each designed to test their skills in different areas of information security. Tracelabs' global CTF takes this concept to a new level, incorporating real-world scenarios that challenge participants to apply OSINT techniques to solve complex problems and find critical evidence to support law enforcement.

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About the event

Opencast joined over 100 teams from across the globe joined in January to utilise their OSINT skills and begin collecting data. The event ran over a high-paced four hours to maximise focus and streamline data collection. This high-intensity approach produced over 4,000 submissions, 3,045 of which were accepted by judges as suitable sources of intel. Points were scored for each type of evidence found and a live tracker of team scores revealed who was scoring what throughout the event.

Of the 3,045 pieces of intel found and passed on to law enforcement for investigation:

  • 106 related to the day last “seen”
  • 376 were advanced subject info
  • 1,083 were basic subject info
  • A further 44 were used to advance the investigation timeline.
  • 790 related to the person’s family
  • 79 were employment related

 

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OSINT challenges: a glimpse into the real world

This activity is just one example of Tracelabs' Global Search Party CTF events. These stand out by integrating OSINT challenges that mirror the challenges faced by cybersecurity professionals in the real world.

Participants are not just solving puzzles; they are navigating the intricate web of online information to uncover hidden details and piece together the puzzle. These challenges may involve:

  • tracking down digital breadcrumbs across social media platforms
  • analysing publicly available data to identify potential threats
  • understanding the nuances of online personas.

By engaging with real-world scenarios, Tracelabs ensures that participants not only enhance their technical skills but also develop a deeper understanding of the ethical considerations and responsibilities that come with OSINT. Participants, ranging from seasoned professionals to beginners, engage in discussions, exchange ideas, and collectively tackle the challenges presented.

The collaborative nature of the event fosters a sense of community, breaking down barriers and promoting the idea the CTF is a collective endeavour, with all teams working towards a common goal. The exchange of insights and techniques during the CTF not only benefits participants but contributes to the overall elevation of the OSINT community.

Elevating awareness

Tracelabs' global CTF not only provides a platform for honing skills but also plays a crucial role in elevating missing persons’ awareness on a global scale. By showcasing the power of OSINT and its practical applications, the CTF inspires participants to become proactive investigators of digital spaces.

In an age where cyber threats are constantly evolving, raising awareness about tools and techniques is paramount. Tracelabs' initiative goes beyond traditional methods of education by offering a hands-on, immersive experience that resonates with participants and encourages them to become lifelong learners in the ever-changing landscape of OSINT.

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The future of OC-OSINT

As technology continues to advance, the relevance of OSINT in cybersecurity will only intensify. Events like these serves as a testament to the importance of hands-on, practical learning in preparing the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

Looking ahead, the integration of OSINT challenges in cybersecurity competitions is likely to become more prevalent. As organisations recognise the value of real-world simulations in training their teams, events like these will continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of cybersecurity education and awareness.

A major learning from Opencast's participation in Tracelabs is the ongoing value of exchanging ideas collaboratively to tackle big social challenges. Their events create a genuine sense of community, with all involved working towards a critical common goal.

Capture the flag events have become a beacon for cybersecurity enthusiasts – with participants using and building their technical skills and also growing their understanding of ethical considerations around OSINT. For me personally, participation offered a brilliant opportunity to use my skills in a space driven by social purpose.

As part of our commitment to social impact, Opencast will continue to support initiatives like these and we want to be a regular participant in future. The work of Tracelabs is ongoing – and Opencast is proud to support them in driving progress on their vital agenda.

Authors

Rosalind Grindrod

Head of security services

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