Unshred a document, win $50K

The shredded bits and pieces of paper known in Defense Department-speak as “pocket litter” have proven to be a treasure trove for intelligence operations, including in the raid of Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout and at Guantanamo Bay. In those cases, information gleaned from documents found onsite and on individuals has led to mission-critical, actionable intelligence, according to DOD officials. Now the department is looking to improve the way it gleans information from the remnants of documents discovered in war zones.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has announced a competition with a prize of up to $50,000 to reconstruct shredded and damaged documents. Through the competition, DARPA hopes to learn more about the best strategies techniques for triaging and exploiting documents that could hold critical information. DARPA is also looking to gain insight into the United States’ own shredding techniques, including the vulnerabilities they could introduce and how to better protect our own information crucial to national security, according to an Oct. 27 release from the agency posted on the DOD Live blog.

“The ability to reconstruct shredded documents will potentially yield information that may save lives or offer critical information about an adversary’s plans,” Dan Kaufman, director of DARPA’s Information Innovation Office, said in the release. “Currently, this process is much too slow and too labor-intensive, particularly if the documents are handwritten. We are looking to the Shredder Challenge to generate some leap-ahead thinking in this area.”

According to DARPA, the challenge will comprise five separate problems of increasing difficulty featuring varying numbers of documents, subject matters and shredding methods. To complete each problem participants must provide answers to puzzles embedded within the documents’ content. The overall prize will depend on the number and difficulty of problems solved.

The competition is open to anyone, whether a computer scientist, puzzle enthusiast or just those who enjoy solving complex problems. Those interested can register at www.shredderchallenge.com, where more details can be found. DARPA is also using Twitter to broadcast updates and information on the challenge, using the hashtag #shredderchallenge.

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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Reader comments

Fri, Nov 4, 2011

Co-mingling the output from several shredders, then splitting the results among several bags, would probably add an order of magnitude to the reconstruction difficulty. If you maintain control of shredder output, the problem is trivial. I think what they are looking for is a solution/problem definition for when a single shredder falls into the hands of the other side without warning. (See Tehran 1979). If it is OUR shredder, what is our exposure? (pretty low with cross-cut micro-shred). If it is the Bad Guys shredder, how can we exploit it?

Wed, Nov 2, 2011 Old Dude

Way back in 1976, when I worked in a secure military installation, a pretty effective method was used: The documents were shredded, then pulped. Pulping involved mixing the shredded bits in something that looked like an overgrown old style (wringer) washing machine, then the excess water was extracted and the pulp was compressed into bricks. These were sent off-site for disposal. The pulping process not only obliterated the integrity of the paper, it tended to also bleach out the inks used in the day. Heat set toners like we use today wouldn't be similarly affected, but reducing the paper to individual cellulose strands is still a pretty effective way of preventing recovery of the documents... Yep, more work than burning, but with the environmental folks worried about co2 emissions and such, maybe returning to pulping would be an option.

Wed, Nov 2, 2011

To my knowledge, the old burn technique is still not reservible

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