What is Trace Labs?

Trace Labs is a nonprofit organization designed to help people on the worst day of their lives.

When a close friend or family member goes missing it is devastating to the family. While most people are located, some do not and suffer unthinkable fates. The family they leave behind never knows what became of them.

Trace Labs provides crowd sourced open source intelligence to help with this situation. We have taken the traditional Capture the Flag (CTF) competition that we see at every information security conference and evolved it. It is no longer a theoretical exercise but instead we take the efforts of contestants to help law enforcement locate missing persons. This takes place through open source intelligence (OSINT) gathering. The CTF focus is OSINT and all flags are for details on the missing persons. These details are collected and then submitted to law enforcement.

This started in July 2018, when Toronto Defcon partnered with Trace Labs to offer the world’s first open source intelligence CTF for missing persons. The Toronto Police Department was onsite and helped to provide guidance. Our hope was we would offer some intelligence that might help. We exceeded our expectations and located two persons. This proved that this system works.

Trace Labs provides both ongoing operations on demand and also through formalized CTF style operations at information security and hacker functions. Our newest initiatives include partnering with corporate organizations, colleges and universities to run similar types of events.

Besides these OSINT operations, Trace Labs also provides the following services:

  • OSINT training for first responders (police, search & rescue, etc)
  • OSINT training for information security professionals and public
  • Missing persons awareness for communities
  • Partnerships with law enforcement, hacker groups, information security teams and missing persons organizations

Why was Trace Labs created?

The president and creator of Trace Labs, Robert Sell, is a ten year volunteer member of a Search and Rescue team in British Columbia, Canada. During the day Robert works in information security. Trace Labs was the marriage of these two disciplines and the result of his desire to improve the open source intelligence capabilities of first responders during a missing person’s incident.

While many people return home within the first week of being missing, the ones who do not are often the target of criminal activity. Robert witnessed the destruction of families when a loved one goes missing. The crushing weight of not knowing what has happened to a son or daughter is devastating.

Fortunately, there is a way to help the families and law enforcement who are searching for these missing persons. Thousands of information security professionals and hackers around the world are able to contribute to Trace Labs operations.

This model creates a cost effective, scalable and highly effective method for finding those who go missing.

What is the Trace Labs CTF?

Traditionally at information security conferences you will see various contests and the Capture the Flag (CTF) contest is the most popular. This is where contestants work on challenges of a technical nature and get points or “flags” for each one they solve. The main difference between traditional CTFs and what Trace Labs offers is that we have zero interest in the theoretical.

We don’t pretend. We don’t ask contestants to solve silly riddles. We don’t talk theory. Our work is with real OSINT that impacts real people.

Trace Labs CTF allows contestants to use their OSINT skills to track real missing persons. These people have families and loved ones who are worried sick about them. Our CTF allows us to generate a lot of intel that we can then give to law enforcement which is used to locate the persons (if we don’t actually give them a location).

The Trace Labs CTF is the only one of its kind. Contestants are making history.

What is the objective of the Trace Labs CTF?

Our primary objective is to collect intelligence on the missing persons. The secondary objective is to find the missing persons. As digital trackers, you are looking for signs of the missing person that when put together can help law enforcement find these people.

What is the Scope of Trace Labs?

The scope of Trace Labs is very clear. Once law enforcement has requested the public’s help to locate a missing person we use that as our invitation to conduct an operation to collect OSINT on that person in an attempt to help law enforcement.

We only submit our finding to the respective law enforcement agency. We have received requests from various parties including private investigators, bounty hunters and media and politely refused those requests.

We only conduct operations on official missing persons that have been issued by the police. We have received requests from families and individuals but unfortunately have had to politely refuse assistance and instead provided them guidance on how to request police assistance. Once the police ask for our help we are then able to assist.

We are not private investigators. While it is easy for our members to get excited and want to help, we must retrain ourselves and limit our actions to OSINT. In respect of the families and those missing persons we conduct only zero touch reconnaissance.

We are not law breakers or vigilantes. We have strict rules around breaking the law in ways such as utilizing publicly available breach data to log in as the missing person. We also do not target the perpetrators. While we may identify criminal activity, we never act on this but instead send all this data to the police. This is a fundamental difference between Trace Labs and other organizations in this field.

Philosophy of Trace Labs

An effective service is cost effective, scalable and effective. Trace Labs was designed to layer on top of what law enforcement is already doing to move more in that direction. Trace Labs never closes. We operate everywhere in the world and we can scale faster and larger than the criminals. We are a tool to be utilized by law enforcement for good. We limit our actions to ensure we don’t interfere with criminal investigations and take full guidance from law enforcement as we evolve.

Accomplishments of Trace Labs

Trace Labs started as an idea in 2018 and quickly grew to a service that produced immediate results. The goal for 2018 was simply to help police with good intelligence gathering while building that relationship. Instead, we located missing persons and developed strong relationships with several police departments. Social media followers of Trace Labs are now in the thousands and the overall feedback is extremely positive. The challenge now is to keep up with demand.

The Future of Trace Labs

Trace Labs is continuing to sign new partnerships with information security conferences every few weeks. The plan is to continue to build upon this model and have an annual circuit of events around the world.

Some of our upcoming activities include the following:

  1. The infrastructure for these CTFs needs to be improved to offer more efficient contestant experience. The current platform was customized for our needs but is not ideal for our long term plans. We are planning to build a new platform that is specifically designed for open source intelligence operations.
  2. Trace Labs is planning a centralized database for missing persons that allows interest groups to conduct analytics on the data. It will aid in helping to identify human trafficking patterns and other analytics.
  3. Trace Labs also plans to expand the CTF model to information security college and universities. This will allow schools to contribute to their local communities and allow students to receive OSINT training.
  4. Trace Labs is currently primarily focused in North America but is currently building its presence around the world. This includes both staff, licensing and infrastructure.
  5. Trace Labs is building OSINT training for missing persons and is currently planning to offer this both onsite and via an online module.
  6. The future of OSINT is automation. Trace Labs currently has a team which is investigating opportunities to utilize AI to conduct OSINT.

Why Sponsor Trace Labs

Trace Labs is a non profit organization that uses funding to build its operation to delivery service. There are no overhead or administrative costs as this is performed by volunteers. Any funding we receive is therefore utilized very effectively.

Here are some of the benefits you can expect:

  • Be included in the media, news and film:  Trace Labs is a very new concept that is fundamentally changing how we help people. This attracts a lot of press. Some of this attention will also spill over to those who support us. Trace Labs has been covered in magazines, podcasts, blogs, and even  local news. Several large media organizations are talking to us about a reality TV show and a documentary.
  • Brand recognition and awareness: Depending on the level of sponsorship, you may recognize your brand placement at some or all of our event branding. This may include tshirts, signage, lanyards, lunch sessions, or site/event signage. Based on your level of participation, custom branding may be arranged including social media, website, physical banners, and podcast interviews. Rather than trying to get your brand displayed at random Information Security conferences, it may be better value to associate it with a particular effort such as Trace Labs to ensure it is noticed.
  • Stay in touch with the industry: Trace Labs enables its supporters and participants to identify and connect with industry leaders and voices.  We travel around the world to different schools and information security conferences. These participants represent the social networking of security.
  • Targeted and Direct Audience: You didn’t enter the secrutity industry selling your product to everyone the same way, so why approach events that way? Instead of marketing to the broader “security” community connect directly with the security practioners who write about, talk about, recommend, and implement security products and services. Rather than trying to pick the conference you want to support, now you can support them all with our travelling presence.
  • Be associated with the next big thing: Trace Labs is the only organization in the world to conduct crowd sourced open source intelligence for missing persons. The demand for our services is so high we are constantly expanding our team to support this.

How to Support Trace Labs

By donating to Trace Labs you are allowing families to receive our help. You are allowing loved ones to be reunited with their families. We thank you for your brave contribution in this area and having faith in us.

Beyond these obvious benefits, this support will also help law enforcement. By providing them with a scalable tool that Trace Labs offers, we free up their time to catch criminals. This in turn makes our world safer.

Our efforts not only help information security enthusiasts receive training in OSINT (which then leads to jobs in law enforcement or government), but also helps spread awareness regarding missing persons.

As a sponsor, there are several options available to you:

  1. Corporate sponsorship of our efforts through financial support. This includes online and onsite advertising for all of our events for a year.
  2. Provide prizes to our contestants. Our contestants work hard and we like to ensure they leave the event with a token of our appreciation. Prizes often consist of software licensing, gift certificates and training.
  3. One time contribution. We appreciate any contributions and will gladly tweet our excitement and appreciation.

If these words have moved you to take action, please do so here:

If you are a corporate sponsor and want to discuss the details, please email us at info [at]

Thank you,

Robert Sell, Creator of Trace Labs