A little before midnight on August 8, Subhajeet Singha sat in front of his computer, unusually alert, excited and slightly stressed. He was just about to judge an online competition wherein 12 volunteers would race against the clock to work on missing person cases.
The 19-year-old recalls how his heart pounded as the competition kicked off. “I was participating for the first time,” he explains over a phone call from Darjeeling, where he is based.
The competition—a unique version of a popular contest called Capture the Flag, or CTF, that’s often played by the hacker, cybersecurity and information security community—was organised by the open source intelligence platform, Trace Labs. The Canadian NGO works on missing person cases where “the police have requested the public’s help” through such events, where tech-savvy volunteers like Singha help with cases online. There are some rules: contacting the subject and his/her family and friends is forbidden, as is illegal hacking—players can only use open source intelligence or OSINT, which Trace Labs describes as “data collected from publicly available sources to be used in an intelligence context”. These sources could be social media accounts, relevant news articles and so on. The prizes include access to in-demand training courses and VIP subscriptions to popular platforms such as Hack the Box, which give contestants an opportunity to test and improve their penetration testing skills.
The competition was a bit of an emotional roller coaster for Singha, a malware analysis enthusiast. It was a far cry from the fun, ‘Identify this picture’ type photo and geolocation challenges he was used to participating in on social media, where nothing was at stake.
“We worked on a case where a US marine was last seen boarding a train,” he recalls. “In another case in the US, an 80-year-old man’s car crashed into a tree and he vanished. There were no blood stains in the car.”
The teams trawled...