Open Innovation Detective Work to Find Missing Persons
A multilocation hackathon to find national missing persons generates thousands of new leads.
Hackathon team, Australia
In a first-of-its-kind event in Australia, police turn to the crowd for help in finding missing people. While the traditional 'missing person' poster campaigns have met with some success, there are currently more than 2,600 people who are now listed as a long-term disappearance. So, the federal police thought they would try something new to bring that number down.
The AustCyber Canberra Cyber Security Innovation Node partnered with the Australian Federal Police, the National Missing Persons Coordination Centre and Trace Labs to organize the country's first-ever National Missing Persons Hackathon. This open innovation event took place in October 2019 in 10 locations across the country, including Darwin, Adelaide, Perth and the Gold Coast.
More than 350 ethical hackers took part and were tasked with generating leads for 12 of Australia's missing-person cold cases. These were people who had disappeared during the last 12 years.
The hackers were provided with publicly available information, and then they carried out their detective work by using sophisticated legal methods of trawling the internet to gather open-source intelligence (OSINT). These are approaches that are also used by police and intelligence agencies.
"This is where innovation brings social value, creating an event which is unlike any other hackathon or capture the flag (CTF) challenge. Theoretical concepts are put aside so participants can operate in real-time, with real (open source) data for real human impact," said Linda Cavanagh, Manager of the Canberra Cyber Security Innovation Node.
So successful were the hackers at digging up new pieces of information that organizers claimed 100 leads were generated every ten minutes.
The winner was a group of four cyber sleuths from Adelaide who found nearly 100 new pieces of evidence for police to investigate.
A crucial part of their strategy was trawling through social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter for any mentions of the missing person, the events surrounding their disappearance, or anything else connected to them. In some cases, the missing people didn't have their own social media profiles. However, posts relating to them that other people had commented on proved to be valuable sources of information.
This open innovation event generated 3, 912 new leads which were given to the Australian Federal Police and the National Missing Persons Coordination Centre. Among these leads were multiple aliases of missing persons, secret email addresses and travel agency accounts. One group also tracked down drone footage of an area where one person had disappeared.
The police and organizers of the National Missing Persons Hackathon were in doubt of the value of involving the crowd.
"Police often say that the community are our eyes and ears. We're taking this concept to a new level," said Assistant Commissioner Debbie Platz. "By involving the community, and in this case, hackers, into the search for missing persons, we hope to solve more long-term missing person cases in a way that police could not do alone."
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