Hunted – The lowdown
‘Hunted’ is a real-life thriller where contestants are instructed to go on the run, while avoiding an elite team of hunters with military, police, or cyber backgrounds that can access the `powers of the state' to track them down.
We’ve had a long running partnership with the show and over the years a number of NCC Group colleagues have been involved in both the main and the UK celebrity series.
As the new UK series launched last month, we caught up with our hunters to find out how they got involved and what life is like on set.
Paul, you are an original “Hunter”, how did this opportunity come about?
Paul: When we were contacted by a producer for what would become Hunted, they brought a laptop to our office and asked if we could break into the laptop and extract data – which, of course, we did. We were doing things like geotagging photographs and working out where people had been. When the first show came out in 2014, we thought we’d just be advising the show from the background. However, very quickly they asked if we could be part of the team of hunters and actually be on camera in the HQ. So we said yeah, why not?
That’s so cool! How did the rest of you get your big break in TV?
Doug: I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in pretty much every series. Shine TV (the production company behind Hunted) approached NCC Group following a piece we had done to ‘hack’ a journalist to see if we could do the same thing as part of their TV show. It all snowballed on from there.
Matt: I was approached to participate in Hunted due to my experience in Law Enforcement and my technical knowledge, particularly regarding OSINT (Open-source intelligence) -type work. This type of activity was part of my day-to-day work in my previous career, tracking down wanted or high-risk persons.
Sophia: This is an interesting question! I actually first did Hunted when I was on my placement year with NCC Group. My manager at the time asked if I wanted to do it to expand the experience I could take away from my placement, as well as improve my offensive skills. When I returned to NCC Group for my graduate role, I opted to do it again as I enjoyed the first series so much!
Izzy: Funnily enough, the opportunity came for me just before I started at NCC Group, I was contacted on LinkedIn by the casting director – she was interested in my Master’s degree / understanding of intelligence and asked if I wanted to get involved with the show. Initially I thought it was spam, until conducting a little bit of OSINT on her to check if the request was legitimate (she’s aware of this now as quite a few of us did ha!) After that I had a few interviews and attended a screening test in London before getting the offer.
So, what do you all love most about the show?
Izzy: For me, it was the cast! We had such a wonderful team of people to work with, which was great considering we spent every waking moment together! Everyone got on so well and could just have a laugh. I think because it’s such a unique experience and your world becomes a bit of a bubble this was really great! Apart from that, definitely the captures! It’s very satisfying when you get them, especially just before when you know you’re close! It’s very tense.
Doug: Yeah agreed, working in HQ alongside some of the most talented and hard-working people I’ve ever experienced. When there’s an urgent task that needs doing, there’s never a long discussion about “whose responsibility it should be”; people instantly step up. If we’re in a crisis situation, people immediately rush off to do whatever they can to provide workable intelligence (pulling up maps on secondary screens to plot aerial escapes, going back over old data to see if it’s more relevant now) – spending every day operating at that level naturally brings out your best side too.
Sophia: For me, it was meeting the huge array of other Hunters on the show. The talent in Hunter HQ is incredible, with many ex-military, ex-police and current serving personnel from all walks of life. It was great to “network” in that sense, as well as use techniques and tooling that I don’t usually use in day-to-day testing.
Matt: Mirroring the others, it goes without saying that one of the things I loved most was the people in Hunted HQ, a great set of folks from all walks of life. In terms of ‘the hunt’, I enjoyed the opportunity to come up with various hair-brained schemes to lure the fugitives into our traps. There were a few ideas we had, which will not make it to TV unfortunately!
Paul: It's an amazing experience to be a part of, because the degree of creative thought that goes on about chaining together pieces of information to see if they actually make logical sense to see if we can work out where someone has gone is great fun. It really is a very, very enjoyable experience, particularly the charity version of the show. It’s great to be involved in something like that, which is doing some social good.
What, if anything, did you find challenging about the experience?
Matt: The main thing I learned – and it took me a couple of weeks – but it is a GAME. An almost overwhelming competitiveness came over me, and I couldn’t shake the ex-copper in me. I was ready to jump in the car myself and grab the fugitives myself at times. So, if they have me back, next time I will not take things too much to heart when the game doesn’t go the way of the hunters.
Izzy: When the trail goes really cold that’s often the most challenging part. There were a few moments with potentially missed associates, so just triple checking everything to be sure I hadn’t missed any key information.
Sophia: Don’t discount basic security slip ups, like common passwords and password reuse. I remember the first time I did the series; I was overthinking what passwords could be – when they were actually quite simple and guessable (which would have saved us a lot of time…)
Doug: It’s very easy to become emotionally invested in the show. The simulation becomes very real if you’re not careful. Learning the boundaries of the game makes it a lot easier to not take the “near-misses” and escapes on extraction day quite so personally. Additionally, learning to rely on external tooling for technical analysis. Sometimes it’s much quicker and easier to buy a product in rather than trying to recreate it from scratch. It saves the time and effort for the really cool things we build instead.
Were you surprised at how easy it was to find the contestants or were there some curveball moments you didn’t count on?
Sophia: A mixture of both in my opinion! I was shocked at first to see such poor security hygiene “in the wild” (such as password reuse, no two-factor etc.) which obviously made it easier for us to compromise they digital lives. However there have been a few contestants that really surprised us in HQ with their attention to detail in their planning and onward movements. It’s always interesting to see what they end up doing next!
Doug: There’s always some major curveballs thrown at us while filming. The fugitives (especially the celebrities!) like to do things to deliberately goad us into making mistakes and looking silly. Sometimes we can use those to our advantage when they accidentally reveal clues, but there are times where we can plan out our scenarios for days and they won’t work out. We think we have gotten to know them from their social media, personal communications and digital forensics, but then they’ll do something completely unplanned in the heat of the moment. Hunted is a constant exercise in rolling with the punches and relying on the principle that we only have to be lucky once, while they have to be lucky every time.
Matt: One of the fugitive teams were particularly difficult to track down and had us chasing shadows for pretty much the entire main series. The others however, were more in keeping with what I’d kind of expect. Having conducted this type of work for real, I had a fairly good idea that the fugitives would slip up at some point, and of course that the ‘powers of the state’ are vast and far reaching and would help us out greatly. It didn’t stop the fugitives trying to trick us, by getting friends or family to throw us off the scent, or taunting us in some cases.
Izzy: The contestants were definitely a mixed bag! Some were easier to trace than others! Sometimes it would be quite funny as you would identify fugitives in really public areas like train stations and you would wonder why on earth they would be so overt. While others were really impressive at how discreet they were, and how widespread their network was. This is especially why I am looking forward to watching the show as we only see one half of the story really, it will be nice to be able to contextualise. Overall I think it was a good lesson with regards to remaining open minded and expecting the unexpected, at least with those fugitives who were successful.
Ok, so If you were a contestant, what would be your game plan?
Matt: I’d go into full-on Bear Grylls/Ray Mears mode.
Izzy: I’d go remote and stay off grid for as long as possible. Enlist the help of strangers. This is much harder to trace (although a little risky as we did have a few callers willing to give up some fugitives for a fee). Of course, it’s very easy to say this being on the other side, I am sure that in practice, and once the paranoia sets in, it’s much more challenging!
Sophia: Live as “offline” as possible. Don’t forget how much the Hunters see, for example – try not to leave notes on your phone about your plans.
Doug: Assign directions to the numbers on a die and roll it every morning to decide which way I was moving next. Use canal paths to move through built up areas and mix it up evenly between camping rural and sleeping on sofas in suburbia. Spend as much time as possible meeting the general public and experiencing the best of the country, it would be the complete opposite of filming in HQ spending 2 months cooped up in the same building with the same 20 people!