DARPA Offers Prize For Method to Unshred Shredded Data

Just when you thought your document was safely destroyed

Reading Between the Lines

The first of five puzzles. Each puzzle is a shredded document that DARPA put through a brand-new commercial shredder. The pieces were then arrayed text-side up and scanned at 400 dpi.DARPA

DARPA's latest tech challenge should make you hesitate to throw out your shredded documents, instead opting for the handy caveman solution of simply burning them. Until DARPA comes up with a way to read ashes as well as messages on shredded paper.

Troops often confiscate the remains of destroyed documents — the SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden took plenty of paperwork, for instance — but they're difficult if not impossible to reconstruct, as DARPA explains on the challenge website. So DARPA is turning to puzzle lovers and computer scientists in search of a new technique. Winners will take home $50,000 and the sense of pride that comes with unnerving millions of people who thought their shredded documents were secure.

To make the five puzzles, DARPA officials bought some commercial-grade paper shredders and put single-sided handwritten documents through them. Some are multiple pages long, and although the pages were shredded separately, their remnants have been mixed together. The pieces were arranged text-side up and scanned at 400 dpi. To solve the puzzles, competitors must reconstruct the documents and answer a puzzle embedded in the context of the rebuilt document, DARPA says. As the puzzles increase in difficulty, solvers can win more points. The puzzles were unveiled Oct. 27 and solvers will have until Dec. 4 to make sense of them.

Go to the DARPA Shredder Challenge site, register, and download the five puzzles, which come with high-resolution TIFF images and a text file containing instructions and puzzle-specific questions. Registered participants can submit solutions for any or all of the puzzles.

"The goal is to identify and assess potential capabilities that could be used by our warfighters operating in war zones, but might also create vulnerabilities to sensitive information that is protected through our own shredding practices throughout the U.S. national security community," DARPA explains.

So maybe shredding paper is not as secure as we all thought. Unless you use it to line the hamster cage, in which case puzzle solvers would have a lot more to deal with.