Hunting Pedophiles On The Dark Web: How I Started Doing It | Hacker Noon

June 21st 2020

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@V3rbaalZoey Selman

Senior Intelligence Analyst, Investigator and Polygrapher specialized in OSINT, HUMINT, GEOINT & SE.

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It started when I was 17, a high school senior about to graduate, wondering what career path I wanted to take. At the time I was doing three IT courses, so naturally going to University for Cybersecurity made sense.

I often laugh as I remember walking into my first University lecture wanting to be a Network Engineer. So how did I go from Network Engineering to hunting pedophiles on the dark web?

I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a strange job — because it is. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to hunt pedophiles. It’s not a career path you plan for, nor was it ever a career path I had imagined myself being in.

Let’s rewind back to 2017 —I was a University student at the time studying Cybersecurity, and still living in Australia. I had just found out that I won a scholarship to the worlds largest hacking conference (obviously DEFCON 25) held annually in Las Vegas. From that moment I had no idea that over a period of 4 years I was going from a Receptionist to everything I listed above.
So I was planning for DEFCON, googling, researching etc… and I came across a Capture The Flag (CTF) styled competition. For those that aren’t in the Cybersecurity industry, a CTF is basically a gamified competition where a flag is worth points. Now this wasn’t just your ordinary CTF, this was a missing persons CTF called Trace Labs. The flags were information you had to find out about a real person which would help law enforcement locate them.
As an Intelligence n00b at the time — this was some real James Bond stuff. I instantly signed up for the competition, and participated in my very first missing persons open source intelligence CTF at DEFCON 25.

I still remember my first target (person to locate) —a 13 year old runaway (so I thought) from Canada. It was 4am, I was sitting at a bar in Las Vegas rapidly typing away on my computer with only 8 hours left on the CTF clock. Let’s be honest —I didn’t care about the CTF clock, I didn’t care about winning.

It was at that bar that I decided I wanted to be in Intelligence. It was at that bar that I was exposed to the darker not so pleasant side of the world… I had just discovered that my 13 year old runaway target, wasn’t a runaway — she was being sex trafficked through an underground pedophilia ring.

I must have gone pale faced because the bartender asked if I was feeling alright, as he swapped my vodka soda for water. It was in that moment that I had never in my life felt so helpless. I knew something about someone, that could change the course of her life, that the rest of the world didn’t know.

The CTF ended, I submitted all my intelligence to law enforcement, but I didn’t stop hunting. Knowing what I knew, I wasn’t going to just sit on the side lines, so I reached out to Rob (Founder of Trace Labs) and told him I wanted in. Rob at the time was a one man army, so he was thrilled to have me onboard.
The next 10 months was a bit of a blur —from expanding Trace Labs, to working more cases, running CTFs all while aiding law enforcement in hunting my 13 year old sex trafficking target, plus many other targets.

This is where it all began and it was just the beginning… not even the tip of the iceberg. From there is was only forward and up.

Fast forward 4 years to where I am today and the work I do in the Intelligence industry. The past 4 years have been some of the hardest lessons i’ve learnt.

1) Intelligence requires a certain type of person. To estimate, probably 85% of people can’t stomach cases I deal with on a day to day basis. I know a lot of my friends probably have no idea what I actually do for work, because I know they can’t stomach it, so I never talk about it.

2) Sometimes you just need to let it go, don’t get caught up on a case as sometimes there is absolutly nothing you can do no matter how hard you try. This was the hardest lesson to learn and it’s important to forgive yourself, you’re only human.

3) Patience is the key. While it’s important to let things go, you need a balance of that and determination mixed with a lot of patience. You may not find a breakthrough now, you might not even find one in 6 months, but one day your patience will pay off.

It’s by far been the craziest journey and this isn’t even the half of it! From here it’s only forward and up.

If you’ve read this far, stay tuned for Part 2 where i’ll do a technical write up of some tactics, techniques and proceedures I used.

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