Before he was kidnapped, Hersh Goldberg-Polin was a big reader. He would absorb himself in different types of books at different times, according to his father, Jonathan Polin. For a while, he was obsessed with biographies of presidents. There was a period he read exclusively about the Holocaust. Lately, he’s been reading books that, Polin says, reflect his son’s curiosity about the world. Right now, the tome by his bed is The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. For 21 days, it has sat there untouched, as his family waits for Goldberg-Polin to come home.
Polin’s nightmare started on October 7, a date now etched into the Israeli psyche, when Hamas gunmen forced their way through the Gaza border wall, killing entire families, destroying border towns, and kidnapping men, women, and children. Polin was at his local synagogue when the air raid sirens went off. By the time he got home around 9 am, his wife Rachel Goldberg showed him two WhatsApp messages she’d received from their 23-year-old son an hour earlier. “We had back-to-back messages sent to us by Hersh at 8:11 am,” Polin told WIRED. “The first one said, ‘I love you.’ The second one said, ‘I’m sorry.’” They’d seen Goldberg-Polin, a dual Israeli-American citizen, the night before. The family thought he was going camping with a friend. But they soon realized he’d spent the night at the Supernova trance music festival, now known as the place where 260 people were murdered. Many others were taken back to Gaza as hostages.
Polin has spent the past three weeks sifting through photos and videos on social media, trying to piece together what happened to his son after he sent those early morning messages. The day of the attack was well documented, with both victims and perpetrators posting footage online. But most of it was filmed inside Israel. Fewer families have seen videos showing their loved ones inside Gaza. For many, the trail ends at the border, leaving families to look for other signs, such as phone location signals, to try to confirm that their loved ones are among the 224 people now believed to be held hostage.
Polin says the Israeli authorities confirmed the last signal they detected from his son’s phone was on the Gaza side of the border. “When you’re living the awful life that we’re living today, you have to look for hope and optimism anywhere you can get it,” he says. “So having a phone identification come in from Gaza is something that gave us a small dose of—I don’t know what the word is, not strength, not optimism, it’s hope—hope that he is with his phone and that he is alive.”
Phone pings can help triangulate a device, a method that approximates location based on the signal a phone sends to nearby cell phone towers when the device makes phone calls, sends messages, or accesses the internet. A person doesn’t have to be actively using their phone for it to send these signals. As long as the device is still on, apps working in the background can also create a “ping” that indicates location according to Scott Greene, a digital forensics expert. In terms of finding where a device is, triangulation is “pretty darn reliable,” he says.
When Israeli officials do not provide families with triangulation data from cell phone towers, families have been trying to track down phones themselves, using the find-my-phone features offered by iPhones and Androids. If family members know, or can guess, a loved one’s password, they can use the feature to ask the device to report back its location. “As long as the phone is on and has a signal, then the GPS will be received by the cell phone device,” he adds. “You can say ‘Where’s my device?’ And it will tell you.”
But phone pings are not conclusive proof of life. Phones can be separated from their owners, or they can, rarely, provide faulty data. WIRED has spoken to one person, who declined to comment for this article, whose relative’s phone was traced by the authorities to Gaza, only for their body to later be identified inside Israel.
Others have not found the answers they’re looking for. Inbar Haiman, 27, was also at the Supernova music festival when Hamas attacked. She is, her boyfriend Noam Alon says, “a true artist … a magical girl … everything I ever wanted.” Like Polin, Alon has spent the past two weeks trying to piece together what happened to her.
So far, he knows that the last text message she sent was at 7:30 am, warning a friend to find somewhere to hide. Two other festivalgoers, who were with Haiman when they were trying to outrun gunmen chasing them, told him what happened next. “She froze, she was so panicked, she started to cry, and she couldn’t run anymore,” Alon recounts. “In that moment, a motorbike with two terrorists came, and they took her.” Friends later sent Alon a video they found on Telegram. From that footage, he could identify Haiman being dragged across the field. There is blood on her face. She appears unconscious. But he recognized her by the distinctive leggings she was wearing that day.
The gap in information is what happened next and where Haiman is now. Alon believes she is in Gaza. But for confirmation, like many others, he turned to her mobile for clues. “We tried to locate her phone,” he says, adding that they used her Android’s Find My Device feature. “Perhaps it is in Gaza. But the last signal was in the area we know she was kidnapped from.”
Where families have struggled to trace their loved ones’ phones, many of Israel’s cyber experts have volunteered to help. NSO Group and Candiru, two surveillance companies blacklisted by the US, have been asked to upgrade their spyware capabilities to help find hostages, according to a report by Bloomberg.
“We were also trying, when we didn’t think it’s damaging, to assist families to track down phones,” says Omri Segev Moyal, CEO of Israeli cybersecurity firm Profero, adding that this is an activity he and his colleagues do in a personal capacity, not as representatives of the company. He declines to comment on whether they have tracked anyone’s phone to Gaza. Instead, he says, he has helped relatives locate their loved ones’ bodies or find people who were still in hiding. “It’s not something that only we are doing,” he says. “I bet everyone with knowledge of mobile devices is trying to help.”
Volunteer cyber experts are not forthcoming about how exactly they are accessing phones’ locations, in case they give details away to the people holding the hostages. Karine Nahon, a professor of information science at Israel’s Reichman University, started a civilian war room of cyber experts to try to locate missing people in the hours after the October 7 attack. The team—which started at 450 people and has now downsized to less than 50 as the number of unsolved cases has shrunk—used a series of algorithms to try to match missing people’s faces, voices, and clothing in the huge amounts of social media content posted to online platforms. “We also use location technologies, but unfortunately I can’t speak about it more,” Nahon says.
Families of Israel’s missing aren’t interested in the exact techniques that decipher where their loved ones are or how they are brought home. “I want to see every hostage brought back to their families alive,” says Goldberg-Polin’s father. “That’s the goal. The means to get there is something I don’t really weigh in on. That’s other people’s jobs.”
Polin, at least, has now found further evidence that his son crossed the border. A video, shared with his parents on October 16 by CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, shows Goldberg-Polin being forced at gunpoint into a truck. He is missing his left hand and part of his arm. After speaking to eyewitnesses, Polin believes this was the result of a grenade blast.
“It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to see a video of their child bloodied, with a limb missing, being put onto a pickup truck of terrorists,” says Polin. But he is encouraged to see that, in the video, Goldberg-Polin is walking on his own. “He looks, given the circumstances, to be somewhat composed. And I’m encouraged that with his weak hand he pulled himself onto the truck. So those things—that composure and that sign of some strength—gave me a sense of strength myself, that he’s got fortitude and strength and perseverance. And maybe he can fight his way through this.”