Cyber-savvy students on the hunt for a missing teenager

18 June 2020

A team of six UCLan student volunteers are using their computing expertise to investigate an unsolved missing person case

A group of tech-savvy student volunteers from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) have been putting their online investigation skills to good use during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The group of six undergraduates and postgraduates have formed UCLan’s first Missing Persons Community Investigation Team and have started to investigate cyberspace for intelligence related to a missing person.

Wendy Marsh, who is finishing her MSc Cybercrime Investigation, is leading forensic computing and forensic science student volunteers Samantha Blakey, Natalie Jones, Damon Hall, James Kelday and Matthew Livesey to search for any information regarding Damien Nettles, a 16-year-old boy who went missing from the Isle of Wight in 1996.

"This is an excellent initiative that is making a real difference to people’s lives. We are really proud of what our students are achieving."

Twenty-seven-year-old Wendy, from Wigan, said: “We are a fresh pair of eyes and are investigating what’s already out there in the public domain, be it on social media platforms, newspapers, comment sections or even historical satellite imagery. Almost everything that we choose to post online is publicly available for anybody to access, unless the privacy settings have been used effectively. What we’re doing is looking at every bit of information and seeing if we can use our skills to find anything that doesn’t sit right.”

At present, the UCLan team is fact checking via Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see if there are discrepancies with the information provided to the police investigation; this includes checking the weather conditions on the day of the teenager’s disappearance and the relationship status of witnesses.

They are working alongside volunteers from the University of South Wales and the project is led by Locate International, a community interest company set up in 2019 dedicated to helping the families of unsolved missing persons cases find their loved ones. This service is carried out at with the agreement of families and at no cost to them.

Twenty-year-old Damon, a former St Cecilia’s RC High School and Preston's College student, commented: “I decided to sign up for this exciting and important project because it seems like a good way to use my computer skills to help make a difference and help others. It’s also something I’m really interested in doing as a career so I’m thankful to be getting experience of this nature while trying to help a family get answers.”

The team has discovered “some interesting points of information” and these have been passed on to the wider team to follow-up.

Damien’s mother Valerie said: “My son vanished from the face of the earth on 2 November 1996 and will be 40 on 21 June. Families of missing people should know that everything possible is being done to find their loved one. Many families do not have this basic reassurance. I believe that Locate and the teams at Lancashire and South Wales have found a way to help our family. I hope it will grow to help many more families. I am grateful to those giving their time to help and hope that more people will join the teams this year.”

John Dempsey, UCLan’s Digital Safety Advocate and course leader for forensic computing, commented: “Not only is this a really valuable programme in terms of helping the family of missing children, it is also giving students a real-world investigative experience, working with teams from other universities and the Police, but also that feeling of doing good within a horrible situation. I'm really proud of the team, they are really helping to design the procedures and structures needed to roll out this programme across the UK. If anyone would like to know more about this programme, possibly to volunteer as an investigator, or to do academic research please get in touch by email on”.

Ian Allison, UCLan’s Executive Dean of Faculty of Science and Technology, added: “This is an excellent initiative that is making a real difference to people’s lives. We are really proud of what our students are achieving. This work shows how important it is that students develop their interdisciplinary and leadership skills in this programme.”