On Friday 11th October 2019, I travelled to Canberra to judge the National Missing Persons Hackathon held during Australian Cyber Week.
This was the first event of its kind in Australia, bringing together 354 participants nationwide to utilise open source intelligence in the hopes of identifying fresh leads for 12 national missing persons cases.
By bringing together Missing Persons Units from across Australia, this also provided me with a unique opportunity to meet and interact with Police Members who were in charge of the missing persons cases.
The event in Canberra was held at the Telstra headquarters. While the function room itself was the perfect size for the event, it was the WIFI access that provided the biggest shock due to it dropping out sporadically throughout the 6 hour event.
Issues with the WIFI were not the only hiccup with the Telstra venues. It’s understood at least two Interstate locations had a last minute venue change after concerns were raised about “hackers” entering the building!
As a judge my role was to process the submissions and award points (according to an established point structure).
From the submissions that I was privy to, the majority of these were mainly social media profiles of the Subject and their known loved ones. If I had to find anything that could be improved about the competition, it would probably be the amount of ‘easy picking’ submissions (that were all awarded minimum points) despite the high probability they would add no additional value to what the Police already had within their file. As a Judge we also looked after multiple teams and there was no current way to confirm whether a team had already submitted the same link previously.
With social media profiles aside, I am quite confident there were submissions that Police would not have been aware of prior to this event – the whole reason why the National Missing Persons Hackathon will become an important date to add to future calendars.
From the submissions I saw, some potential leads included:
- Secondary email addresses and alias accounts of the missing person;
- Accounts linked to the missing person on travel sites;
- Commentary by individuals online who advised they hadn’t spoken to Police yet despite knowing the missing person;
- Potential revenue streams through Advertisements on domains once linked to the missing person (Note: This submission perked my interest and unfortunately I was able to discount this at the time as the domain had expired and reissued to a reseller).
One submission I found a particular stand-out was from a team who was looking into a missing person who left their last known location on foot wearing only flip flops (thongs). Using maps available online, the team had worked out how far an individual could have walked within a particular timeframe and created the best ‘search zone’ to be followed up.
At one stage, another team believed they had located a missing person. Their judge had asked for assistance to see if this could be verified and whether they should award the points. For someone like myself who investigates these types of cases on a daily basis, it was very easy for me to quickly discount this individual after identifying multiple other secondary accounts, including during the timeframe when she was first reported missing.
This again is something that probably be should considered for future hackathons, having a dedicated person/team who have the expertise to quickly follow up any high scoring submissions.
Of the 12 missing person cases, one of the individuals was Tej Chitnis, which is a case I have personally followed since his disappearance. For me I was a little disappointed that (despite all the wonderful submissions I saw about his case), none of the submissions included the article I had wrote about his case back in 2018 which included his last known open source Facebook comment. Regardless of this, I truly hope there were some quality leads to follow up in the other submissions for both his case and the other cases.
The full list of missing persons cases worked on this event were:
Jean POLICARPIO (Australian Capital Territory)
Zac BARNES (New South Wales)
https://www.podparadise.com/Podcast/1485960220 (What happened to Zac? Podcast)
Theo HAYEZ (New South Wales)
Of note, the podcast has focused on the importance of tracking Hayez through his Google data and using online investigation methods to locate witnesses at his last known locations at the time of his disappearance. (Source: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/podcasts/the-lighthouse-podcast-net-sleuths-on-a-photo-trail-for-theo-hayez-clues/news-story/29d9871e8ecd8b95ef1f040e002c5c15)
Peter KOEVER (Northern Territory)
Rebecca HAYWARD (Northern Territory)
Tanya BUCKLAND (Queensland)
Peter ENGLISH (Queensland)
David John MANSELL (South Australia)
Tej CHITNIS (Victoria)
Antonio POPIC (Western Australia)
Gary FELTON (Western Australia)
Nazrawi WOLDEMICHAEL (Tasmania)
According to AustCyber (https://www.austcyber.com/news-events/adelaide-team-wins-australias-first-hackathon-find-national-missing-persons), the 6 hour event resulted in 3912 generated leads with an average of 10 leads submitted by participants every minute.
Adelaide team SaabAU placed first, submitting 97 pieces of information during the Hackathon. In second place was Sydney team Accenture with 89 submissions, followed by Melbourne team Hiddenagenda with 85 submissions.
Overall it was a fantastic event and I would strongly recommend anyone with an interest in open source intelligence participating in.
Ultimately, if a single lead out of the 3912 generated provides a new line of enquiry for the Police then the event is a true success. One can only hope the families of the missing will see the positive in over 300 people coming together to try and find their loved one.