Entertainment And News

A Group Of Volunteer Hackers Are Using Their Skills To Track Down Missing People

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Hackers find missing people

Hackers tend to get a bad reputation online because some people who have good hacking skills end up using them in bad ways — stealing people’s personal information like credit cards or even stealing someone’s identity.

However, there are some groups of hackers who use their skills for good like the infamous hacktivist group ‘Anonymous,’ who are known for their cyberattacks against malicious governments or bodies.

But one less well-known example of good-deed hackers is an organization called Trace Labs.

‘Trace Labs’ volunteers to help find missing people using hacking skills.

Trace Labs is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to accelerate the family reunification of missing persons while training members in the trade craft of open source intelligence (OSINT),” reads their ‘Who We Are’ page.


Robert Sell is the founder of Trace Labs and has a background in search and rescue and is a computer security professional.

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“I get to see all the people that go missing and as I was paying attention to that, I noticed that there’s a lot of people that go missing that we never look for,” he said during a short documentary by Freethink. “I always wondered, ‘who’s looking for those people if I’m not?’ Sometimes it’s nobody.”

Trace Labs was a blending of his passions. Sell uses his skills to find little details about a person’s online activity and using them to deduce information about their possible location.

“When you go to a typical security conference,” Sell explains, “There are so many different things you can do — you can learn how to hack a car, how to hack a voting machine — whatever you want to do is there, yet that effort is wasted and away because it’s not used for anything else.”

Sell believes that hacking should, aside from cyber security, be used for something good and something that can help people.

“What we do is we take all that effort and put it into something that’s actually going to benefit society,” he added. “We’re addressing all those people that go missing that nobody’s looking for right now.”

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Trace Labs attracts volunteer by organising search events. 

He organizes events like “Capture the Flag” that will get everyone’s foot in the door — awarding people with points that they can use to spend on prizes in order to work them up toward the OSINT Search Parties that will help find missing persons.

But it goes much more outside of that. With a community of over 10,000 members strong, the real goal is to give people the tools they need to be able to help on their own without necessarily needing to be part of the Trace Lab events.

Trace Labs has run 35 search party events and has assisted in over 320 cases with law enforcement officials and also seeks to raise awareness of the missing persons issue.

“Contestants will come in and they say, ‘wait a minute, are these real missing people?’” explains Sell. “And you can see their mind change, where it’s like ‘Wow, we’re actually changing people’s lives.”

He admits that what they’ve done is gameified a very serious issue, but emphasizes that this was likely the only possible way to “push the envelope” and get people involved in finding these missing persons.

With the nationally recognized case of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie months behind us, more and more people have been pushing for initiatives that can help find these missing persons or preventative measures that will stop people from going missing in the first place.

“Anywhere I can push that envelope and allow us to do better, I feel pretty good about that,” Sell adds. “So hopefully, this inspires people to do that.”

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Isaac Serna-Diez is a writer who focuses on entertainment and news, social justice, and politics. Follow him on Twitter here.