Stasi files to be reassembled

A good deal of money and effort is being spent by German researchers to reverse the document destruction used by the East German secret police group called Stasi. Although this seems noble for the causes of computer science, history and perhaps even justice, it starts to beg the question whether this will raise the bar for those who want to safely destroy their documents. Nature reports:

Bertram Nickolay, head of security technology at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology (IPK) in Berlin, says that the heart of the reconstruction software that his team has spent years developing is powered by algorithms designed to recognize and process digital patterns and images.

The pieces of torn documents are scanned on both sides, and the digital images are then analysed by a cluster of 16 computers for 25 features, including colour, shape, texture, handwriting and typeface, Nickolay says. Just like a person doing a jigsaw, the computer then groups the images into clusters with similar features, and finally fits pieces in each cluster together. The software should get better with time, Nickolay notes. “It learns as it processes.”

Sounds impressive. But “torn” documents? That doesn’t sound like secret police security.

“It was a mountain of files,” says Bormann. The Stasi lacked enough paper-shredding machines to do the job right, and began tearing documents by hand and stuffing them into bags.

The plan had been to transport bags bulging with documents by trucks to locations where they could be burned, but by January 1990 East German citizens had taken control of Stasi offices and the plan could not be carried out. West German authorities eventually seized still-intact Stasi documents and more than 16,000 bags of ripped documents.

Sounds like someone in Stasi under-prepared and over-engineered the document destruction process and thus left a giant gaping hole, which led to recovery of the files. Did they stuff all the related pages together into nicely labeled bags? Makes me wonder what was really going on in the final days — from incompetence to intentional internal subterfuge to facilitate reconstruction of files.

Project leader Jan Schneider says the algorithms used for the software could also be used to reconstruct documents shredded into much more uniform pieces by machines. “It wouldn’t be too complicated,” he says.

Ha. Neither is organizing and burning paper, but look where that ended.

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