Skip to main content
Move the World.

One unfortunate truth that anyone involved in a missing person case quickly learns is that there are more missing people in the world than there are available resources to find them.

The first few days after a person goes missing are the most crucial for finding them safe and sound. However, since missing people tend to turn up on their own, these cases are initially given low priority. The exception is if there's a strong reason to believe the missing person is in danger.

Law enforcement agencies are swamped with addressing crimes that are considered more immediate, like homicide and domestic violence. In reality, a large portion of their time is dedicated to completing paperwork, rather than solving investigations.

As a result, when a loved one goes missing, the search is largely left up to the individual's friends, family, and community. By turning the search for missing people into a virtual game of "capture the flag" for hackers, an organization called Trace Labs has found a way to globally scale search resources through crowdsourcing.

On A Mission to Find Missing People

How many people go missing each year? According to Trace Labs, at any given time there are roughly 100,000 open missing persons cases in the United States. Each day, more than 2,500 American children and adults are reported missing.

Although the vast majority of missing people are found, thousands of cases remain open. These cases are more than just open files; they're real people. They're sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, grandparents, and friends with faces, names, and lives. And when missing people remain unfound, it leaves loved ones worried, devastated, and without closure.

So Robert Sell founded Trace Labs to help law enforcement agencies around the world locate individuals who are publically listed in a missing persons database. Sell is a computer security professional and a tracker for search and rescue.

Trace Labs is the unique product of his experiences working in both of these diverse fields. The organization provides much needed support and relief to family and friends searching for missing people on their own. 

How Trace Labs' Hackers Find Missing Persons

One of the main resources that law enforcement agencies use to find missing people is publicly available information. This includes anything from a person's physical description and identification numbers, to photographs and social media check-ins. This type of information is called open-sourced intelligence, often referred to as OSINT in the industry.

Trace Labs recruits hackers from around the world to scour public databases for information about missing people, such as the day they were last seen.

OSINT is invaluable for finding missing people. A specific example of its use would be if a missing person was spotted in the background of a picture posted on social media. With an attached location or additional information contained in the photograph, an investigator could check footage from nearby surveillance cameras to further investigate the person's movements.

But amassing OSINT on a missing person, let alone several missing people, is more than a full-time job. Most law enforcement agencies don't have the time, personnel, or office equipment to dedicate to this type of research.

This is where Trace Labs steps in. Trace Labs recruits hackers from around the world to scour online public databases for evidence, gathering OSINT on individuals who are publicly listed as "missing." 

The Rules of The Game

In order to motivate hackers in their search efforts, Trace Labs holds competitions at tech conventions around the world. These events include a brief introduction to the Trace Labs platform and the rules of the "game." Rules are designed to ensure that all hackers participate legally, conduct themselves respectfully, and do not accidentally impede an investigation.

Trace Labs operates with a strict set of no-touch rules, which prohibit participants from hacking into private accounts, making contact with anyone connected to the cases at-hand, or engaging with the media, law enforcement, and potential suspects. Participants are neither investigators nor vigilantes; they're researchers.

Throughout a Trace Labs event, the "flags" to be captured represent various pieces of information about the selected subjects - real, missing people. A captured flag might represent a photo, license plate number, the name of a friend, or information about the day the missing person was last seen.

If the person was spotted in a picture on social media, an investigator could check local surveillance cameras to further investigate.

Each flag found is awarded points by judges who work for Trace Labs. The hackers with the most points stand to win a prize at the end of the day. Everyone involved enjoys the satisfaction that comes with having helped research a missing persons case.

Although Trace Labs doesn't publish all of their success stories, at their first event, they helped local law enforcement solve two missing persons cases. Participants in Trace Labs' efforts have also contributed countless pieces of valuable information to law enforcement agencies. 

How to Help With Unsolved Missing Persons Cases

If you'd like to get involved in Trace Labs' efforts, you can learn more about becoming registered by watching the videos on their website. Trace Labs only allows registered hackers who have been familiarized with their platform to participate in research and Capture the Flag events.

Participants in Trace Labs' efforts have contributed countless pieces of valuable information to law enforcement agencies.

And even if you don't consider yourself tech-savvy enough to be a hacker, there are other ways to be a part of the important work Trace Labs is doing. For example, you can train to become a judge, help sponsor an event, or donate to the cause.

If you'd like Trace Labs to help you locate a loved one, keep in mind that the organization only investigates missing persons cases which have been publicly posted by law enforcement, or cases for which law enforcement has requested help from the public.

They do not accept cases that have yet to be reported to public authorities, such as cases being entirely handled by a private investigator. To submit a missing persons case to Trace Labs, you can easily submit an "Op Request Form" on their site.

Although not every case will be successfully closed, with Trace Labs the search for a loved one is an ongoing effort that doesn't have to be carried out single-handedly.

For more interesting news about the people and ideas that are changing our world, subscribe to Freethink.

More From Digital Detectives:

Up Next

Coded
Nico Sell Thinks Hackers Can Be a Force for Good
Nico Sell
Coded
Nico Sell Thinks Hackers Can Be a Force for Good
After criminals hijacked the term, Sell is on a mission to change our perception of hackers.
By Michael O'Shea

After criminals hijacked the term, Sell is on a mission to change our perception of hackers.

Coded
The Hackers Exposing Government-Wide Crime and Corruption
The Hackers Exposing Government-Wide Crime and Corruption
Coded
The Hackers Exposing Government-Wide Crime and Corruption
Displaying the power of unique technological abilities combined with dogged investigative journalism
By Michael O'Shea

Displaying the power of unique technological abilities combined with dogged investigative journalism

Digital Detectives
Keeper of the Missing
Keeper of the Missing
Watch Now
Digital Detectives
Keeper of the Missing
One woman is tracking thousands of missing people. Autism is her superpower.
Watch Now

Subscribe for More Stories From the Digital Detectives Series Subscribe Meaghan Good has made it her life’s mission to track missing people. She runs The Charley Project, an important database compiling information on thousands of missing persons cases in...

Public Health
Experts Unveil “Breakthrough” Map of Key Coronavirus Protein
Experts Unveil “Breakthrough” Map of Key Coronavirus Protein
Public Health
Experts Unveil “Breakthrough” Map of Key Coronavirus Protein
Scientists have created the first atomic-scale 3D map of 2019-nCoV’s spike protein, the part of the coronavirus that infiltrates human cells.

Scientists have created the first atomic-scale 3D map of 2019-nCoV’s spike protein, the part of the coronavirus that infiltrates human cells.

State of Surveillance
New Tech Can See Through Walls and ID People by the Way They Walk
gait recognition
State of Surveillance
New Tech Can See Through Walls and ID People by the Way They Walk
A California-based lab is using gait recognition and radio frequency to create a surveillance system that can see behind walls.

A California-based lab is using gait recognition and radio frequency to create a surveillance system that can see behind walls.

Superhuman
The Most Advanced Bionic Leg on the Planet & the Team Bringing it to Life
The Emerging Cyborg
Watch Now
Superhuman
The Most Advanced Bionic Leg on the Planet & the Team Bringing it to Life
Alec McMorris is testing one of the world’s most advanced prosthetics - an AI powered bionic leg.
Watch Now

Alec McMorris is testing one of the world’s most advanced prosthetics - an AI powered bionic leg. See how Dr. Tommaso Lenzi and the Bioengineering Lab at the University of Utah are revolutionizing life for people who require artificial limbs.

Dispatches
Paige and the Virus Hunter
Paige and the Virus Hunter
Dispatches
Paige and the Virus Hunter
Drugs couldn’t stop her infection — so she asked Ben Chan to get her a virus, instead.
By Kaitlin Ugolik

Drugs couldn’t stop her infection — so she asked Ben Chan to get her a virus, instead.

Coded
It’s Time for Regular Americans to Think Differently About Cybersecurity
It’s Time for Regular Americans to Think Differently About Cybersecurity
Coded
It’s Time for Regular Americans to Think Differently About Cybersecurity
If huge companies and government agencies can't manage the cyber threats, how can ordinary Americans?
By James Poulos

If huge companies and government agencies can't manage the cyber threats, how can ordinary Americans?