Ethical hacker and social engineer Chris Hadnagy has helped get child predators off the streets. Now, he’s recruiting other hackers to do the same.
Last month, Hadnagy launched a non-profit organization called the Innocent Lives Foundation that works to unmask anonymous child predators online. It uses legal hacking techniques to identify these individuals and shares that information with law enforcement.
“Our goal is to locate people who produce and trade [child pornography],” he said. “Finding child pornography is sadly simplistic in itself on the open and dark web. We are trying to locate the people who are producing it. If we can get rid of the producers, and unmask them, then we can minimize the trading of it.”
Hadnagy, 44, has worked in IT and security for almost two decades. He educates people on various types of social engineering, like phishing or impersonating people to try and access computer systems.
Hadnagy, a father of two, said the work can take an emotional toll but he feels drawn to do something to stop what’s happening online.
In previous work with clients, he uncovered a handful of child exploitation cases and turned this information over to law enforcement. It led to multiple arrests, he said.
“The ability to work on a couple cases where the end result is imprisonment and [protecting] children is an eye-opening experience,” he said.
He is currently working on 10 cases with the foundation. There are more than six local law enforcement agencies in contact with ILF right now and three Fortune 500 companies looking to support it, Hadnagy said.
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The ILF uses data from open-source intelligence, which connects the dots on publicly available data to find out someone’s identity. For example, it can find an anonymous username that matches a public Instagram account.
Child predators often use social media aliases to target victims. According to releases from the Department of Justice, convicted child pornographers have used platforms like Instagram, Kik, and Facebook. Many operate and distribute photos on the dark web — sites only accessible with Tor software, and not cached by search engines like Google.
ILF looks for aliases and people — not images — associated with the distribution.
During the course of one current investigation, Hadnagy found a public collection of 51,000 images of child erotica. He reported it to the FBI and found the usernames of the people who published the collection. He was able to match usernames with real identities. The images are no longer online.
Hadnagy is looking for other hackers and companies to join in the mission, either by donating data, time, or money. The donations will go toward paying hackers for the time spent working to identify child predators. ILF will provide training on how to legally collect and hand over data to law enforcement.
“When I have really hard times, and there are a lot of things you can’t unsee, I take a lot of time with my family,” he said. “And I have a very strong belief in God, and I attach myself to that to help combat any of the negative influences of this crap.”