OSINT research and reporting are use-it-or-lose-it skills. To brush up on mine, I participated in a recent Skull Game to put OSINT to a good cause — identifying possible instances of human trafficking.

While attending OSMOSISCon in October of this year, there was a presentation about an OSINT exercise called Skull Games. I was enamored by what they were accomplishing using OSINT and OSINT practitioners. 

The group behind Skull Games is All Things Possible (ATP), an organization committed to addressing and preventing sexual exploitation across the globe. In their fight to combat human trafficking, ATP conducts daily OSINT searches or organized “surges” to identify potential trafficking victims and perpetrators through online sites. ATP also runs a “Victims to Victors” project which trains survivors of sexual exploitation in OSINT skills to help research other suspected instances of trafficking. 

What is Skull Games?

Skull Games is a remote operation where participants perform open-source research on some of the web’s top escort sites to identify potential trafficking victims and perpetrators. Participants are awarded points for the difficulty of information obtained; for example, 10 points are awarded for uncovering first and last names, while 1000 points are awarded for locating a missing person. Research revolves around escort sites and ads, but information uncovered here serves as pivot points which must be investigated and corroborated with other open-source information.

ATP is adamant that participants practice passive OSINT — not hacking — and not contact any individual related to their research or contact law enforcement on their own. ATP will submit approved reports to law enforcement for further investigation; as such, they emphasize responsible evidence handling to maintain chain of custody.

My experience with Skull Games

The Skull Games presentation got me thinking that, as a former intelligence analyst, I can lend my skills to help this great cause. It was also an opportunity for me to re-engage my OSINT skill that I probably haven’t used in a few years. So when ATP accepted me to join an upcoming Skull Game, I was excited and nervous at the same time. I went to the two training sessions where the organization assesses attendees’ OSINT abilities and approves them for participation in real-world exercises.. The trainings also give some background on human trafficking — a subject many attendees had little to no experience with — and what details to look for that indicate trafficking could be taking place. 

After the training events, approved participants move onto the actual Skull Games. Participants were able to choose their own case where they would work to identify the person listed on the escort website that was loaded by ATP in their collaboration tool. In addition to uncovering the real name of the person listed in the case, the objective is to understand if they are being trafficked, who is trafficking them and where they are currently located. Emphasis was placed on using open-source information, such as on social media sites, to identify individuals, but ATP also had access to several closed sources to assist in investigations.

How my investigation played out

As I was conducting my investigation, I kept running into dead ends on the escort sites of the person I was looking for. But then I had a break: I found a SnapChat account for the potential victim. As collaboration is key to Skull Games’ ethos, I shared my finding with the group who were able to uncover the name on the SnapChat account, which set off a chain of events: 

  • Another member of the team found publicly available information (PAI) on the potential victim using a closed collection source 
  • Based on the fellow participant’s PAI, I searched several social media sites to find any and all information that the potential victim was posting
  • I could dive deeper to determine if she was being trafficked and who was actually trafficking her

I was not perfect in my endeavor to find this individual and nor was I able to actually find the true identity of her trafficker. Thankfully, Skull Games is collaborative and ongoing; I submitted my report which future investigators can use and build on and, hopefully, pass on to law enforcement. 

Takeaways from my OSINT exercise

During my time participating in Skull Games I learned a few things about my OSINT skills; namely, they were ok but not where I thought they should be. 

My attention to detail in research was rusty. I made a mistake where I misspelled the victim’s name causing me to waste hours that I could have spent finding more information. Conversely, too much attention to “the little things” bogged down my reporting. I was nervous about how my report would look and, critically, if my analysis was correct. I spent a lot of time hand-wringing over it when I should have just filled out the report in the format provided and moved on.   

But the biggest takeaway for me was that, even with my past experience, conducting OSINT research is a perishable skill that if not used frequently will take time to get back. That skill needs to be used in order to keep it sharp. Regular OSINT practice in your profession or in your freetime will make you more efficient and improve the quality of your research. Joining an organized exercise with real-world impacts like Skull Games has the added benefit of using your training as a force for good. 

OSINT research