Inside the ‘civilian war room’ where Israeli volunteers hunt for the prisoners of Hamas

Avia Shira in the "war room" where volunteers track Israeli prisoners of Hamas.
Click to play video: 'Israel tech workers on mission to find hostages'
Israel tech workers on mission to find hostages
Jeff Semple gets an inside look at how a volunteer team of high-tech experts is helping track down the hostages of Hamas – Oct 19, 2023

TEL AVIV—On the morning of the Hamas attack, Sigi Cohen lost contact with her son. All she knew was that he and his girlfriend were at a music festival that Hamas had targeted.

But at around 11 a.m. that Saturday, she saw a photo of him in Gaza, and she knew: he was a prisoner of Hamas.

The Oct. 7 assault on Israel was widely captured on phone, security, dashboard and body cameras. Now those images are being closely analyzed for traces of the more than 200 people taken hostage that day.

Hamas not only killed 1,400 during its attack, but it also took prisoners, among them kids and seniors. Freeing the captives has become a national cause in Israel, but first they have to be found.

It’s a significant challenge, and Rafael Franco decided to try a technological approach. The day after the attack, he reconfigured his Tel Aviv cyber company to search for the disappeared.

Rafael Franco has turned his Tel Aviv company, Code Blue Cyber, into a war room to find missing Israelis. Stewart Bell/Global News

Franco’s office is now a “civilian war room,” where volunteers scour the internet for the prisoners. The system they built consists of 300,000 images downloaded from TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

Face recognition technology compares them with photos provided by the families of those missing. So far, they have found about 50 matches.

They also geolocate landmarks in the images to determine where the prisoners were last seen. Their findings are passed to the Israeli military.


“The most important thing is to know they are alive,” said Franco, the former deputy director of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate. “So this is what we do.”

Click to play video: 'Israel vows to free hostages from Gaza as Hamas threatens executions'
Israel vows to free hostages from Gaza as Hamas threatens executions

Forty volunteers are working on the hunt, with support from Google and Microsoft, Franco said. The method is working but the news isn’t always good.

One of the young men they were looking for turned up in a video uploaded in Gaza. It showed his lifeless body being pulled out of the back door of a car and kicked. At least his family knew.

But another search found a missing man alive in Gaza, at least at the time the image was taken.

During a visit by Global News, the volunteers also searched for the two missing Canadians. They found no sign of either Vivian Silver, 74, and Judih Einstein Haggai, 70.

“Unfortunately, right now we don’t have any match,” he said.

Voluteers are using face-recognition technology to find traces of more than 200 Israelis kidnapped by Hamas. Stewart Bell/Global News

In the windowless room where the searches take place, volunteers sat at a conference table with their laptops open. Their database of the missing was projected on a large TV mounted on the wall. Some of the images that appeared on the screen were gruesome.

Volunteer Avia Shira said she first got involved when a friend asked for help finding her cousin. She found him, but he was dead.

“Every one of us has some personal connection to this tragedy,” Shira said. “This is one of the reasons we are here.”

Shira said she spends all day in the war room, then goes home to work at her regular job at a U.S. cyber-intelligence company.

“I felt I can’t just sit and do nothing,” she said.

Dashcam video seized from a Hamas vehicle shows the attack at an Israeli music festival. South First Responders

The military commander in charge of freeing the prisoners acknowledged the role of the Israeli tech sector in a statement Thursday.

“Together, new technological systems have been developed dedicated to this effort,” Major General Nitzan Alon said.

Bringing the prisoners home was a “top priority” for the Israel Defense Force, he said.

Hamas has said it was holding between 200 and 250 prisoners, and would release them “when the field conditions allow.”

But analysts believe the armed group will likely hang on to them to deter an Israeli military invasion, and to exchange them for Hamas prisoners.

The family of Mia Schem at press conference on Tuesday following the release of a video by Hamas, in which the 21-year-old Israeli woman is seen. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg).

Families gathered Thursday at a Tel Aviv office space that has opened to help them keep up pressure to bring their loved ones home.


Adva Adar said her grandmother, Yada Adar, was abducted from her home in Nir Oz. The 85-year-old was later seen in social media images, being paraded through Gaza in a golf cart.

Adar said she couldn’t image how frightened her grandmother must have been. When Hamas attacked, she couldn’t run. She can barely walk, she said.

“It’s horrible and we are very, very concerned for her.”

A vigil outside the defence ministry in Tel Aviv in support of more than 200 Israelis taken prisoner by Hamas. Stewart Bell/Global News

Ziv Abud said she was at a dance party in the Negev desert with her boyfriend Eliya Cohen when the air sirens went off. They got into a shelter, but the Hamas gunmen found them and opened fire inside.

The attackers then tossed a grenade into the shelter room. Cohen was wounded but still alive when Hamas took him away. Abud said she survived because she was under a pile of bodies. She stayed there until she was rescued six hours later.

A Telegram post confirmed Cohen, 26, was alive in Gaza. “I can’t say that I am happy but it gave me a little hope,” she said.

His mother said Cohen lived in Tel Aviv, worked in sales and marketing and loved to travel.

“He’s my first and only son,” she said. “I know in my heart that he will come back.”