Military Crowdsourcing
November 23, 2011 9:30 AM   Subscribe

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is using a challenge program to find out whether it's possible to put shredded documents back together again. "DARPA’s Shredder Challenge calls upon computer scientists, puzzle enthusiasts and anyone else who likes solving complex problems to compete for up to $50,000 by piecing together a series of shredded documents. 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."

This isn't the first time DARPA has used crowdsourcing to come up with new solutions.

In 2002, the first Grand Challenge was issued: Build a robotic vehicle able to travel unassisted on a predefined path of about 130 miles through the Mojave Desert. The fastest robot to navigate the course in less than 10 hours will take home $1 million.

In 2005, the same challenge was issued again and this time Stanford's Racing Team developed the winner, Stanley.

In 2007, a new challenge began: Build a robotic vehicle that can operate in urban traffic, finding its own path while also following traffic rules. Each team was provided a GPS map of an urban cityscape, simulating military supply missions in an urban setting. Traveling among manned and robotic vehicle traffic, the team vehicles traveled through required points in the mock city. Teams were required to complete the 60-mile course safely in less than six hours.

The winner of the 2007 Urban Challenge was Boss, engineered by Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing Team. (previously on MeFi)

2009 brought about the DARPA Network Challenge. Under the rules of the competition, the $40,000 challenge award would be granted to the first team to submit the locations of 10 moored, 8-foot, red, weather balloons at 10 previously undisclosed fixed locations in the continental United States. The balloons were to be placed in readily accessible locations visible from nearby roads.

MIT's Red Balloon Challenge Team won the competition in under 9 hours.
posted by keli (55 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
$50,000

Whoever bids this job for that price is going to earn less than the minimum wage before it is completed.
posted by three blind mice at 9:35 AM on November 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


"warfighters" ?
posted by honest knave at 9:36 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Piecing Together Germany's Shredded Stasi Files
posted by adamvasco at 9:38 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


"warfighters" ?

I'm no thoughtcrafter, but there's probably a better word for that.
posted by theodolite at 9:38 AM on November 23, 2011 [11 favorites]


Whoever bids this job for that price is going to earn less than the minimum wage before it is completed.

Whoever wins this contest is going to earn more than the minimum wage after it is completed.
posted by DU at 9:39 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


"warfighters" is a stupid but completely standard military term.
posted by DU at 9:39 AM on November 23, 2011


At least we won't confuse them with peacekeepers.
posted by benzenedream at 9:40 AM on November 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


"Whoever bids this job for that price is going to earn less than the minimum wage before it is completed."

Yes, but the expertise gained should be much more valuable, not to mention that listing DARPA Challenge Winner on your resume (or even just Challenge Participant) will open a few doors along the career path.
posted by oddman at 9:41 AM on November 23, 2011


They may want to have a word with the Fraunhofer Institute (i.e., the MP3 people).
posted by acb at 9:42 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are there any updates on piecing back together the Egyptian SSIS's shredded documents?
posted by jeffburdges at 9:46 AM on November 23, 2011


I suspect it would be much more useful to figure out how to install tech in shredders to scan what's being shredded.

The trick would be getting it right when you're talking 15 sheets or more at a time.
posted by Decimask at 9:48 AM on November 23, 2011


50K is cheaper than spying on the Germans, I guess.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:51 AM on November 23, 2011


The other trick would be getting your enemies to use the scanning shredders.
posted by DU at 9:51 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


They could just shred 50,000 dollar bills and see if you could put them back together again.
posted by chavenet at 9:53 AM on November 23, 2011 [10 favorites]


Seems to me like this is something extremely well suited to a Folding@home-style program.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:53 AM on November 23, 2011


The ePuzzler project at Fraunhofer IPK has been developing procedures to reassembly documents shredded by the Stasi (German article).

One of their recent papers describes a procedure that "is able to compose nearly 98% of the ruptured pages" (each was randomly torn into an average of 8.3 pieces).
posted by James Scott-Brown at 9:53 AM on November 23, 2011


During the hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, the American staff wasn't able to burn classified documents. The story goes the Iranians collected up the shredded remains and had skilled carpet weavers put them back together.

Moral of the story: shredding isn't enough. You need to shred, then burn. Then compress into charcoal. And burn again.
posted by rh at 9:54 AM on November 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


adamvasco: "Piecing Together Germany's Shredded Stasi Files"

That was the first thing I thought of too - the Fraunhofer Institute are well on the way to solving the problem, though I doubt they'd license their e-Puzzler tech for a one-off payment of $50k.
posted by jack_mo at 9:54 AM on November 23, 2011


We should really require that all governmental data be backed up offsite with facilities controlled exclusively by the judicial branch. Bush's email-gate. Romney's hard-drive-gate. Footage showing police brutality. etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:00 AM on November 23, 2011


might also create vulnerabilities to sensitive information that is protected through our own shredding practices

The incinerator's over there.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:03 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Pulping (shredding and mixing with water) seems to be the gold standard, short of burning.

My understanding is that the key to a good reconstruction is capturing the microscopic fibers, which contain far more information than the mere pattern of text or even the tear surface.
posted by effugas at 10:05 AM on November 23, 2011


"warfighters?"

I'm no thoughtcrafter, but there's probably a better word for that.


"Warfighters" is a very specific term of art within the (American, at least) military world. And we already had a semi-epic metatalk discussion about it here. Let's not get into this again, please.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:06 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, this is similar to the challenge Instagram has issued.

Which makes me think this is quite a low bar for a DARPA challenge. Shouldn't they be challenging people to develop ways to piece together digital information from destroyed hard-drives and memory sticks or way to reconstruct information sent over noisy airspace or covert channels on public networks? Putting together shredding documents doesn't feel very... advanced.
posted by rh at 10:06 AM on November 23, 2011


Haven't dumpster-divers, private detectives, and certain national security agencies been re-assembling shredded documents for a good long time now?
posted by Thorzdad at 10:09 AM on November 23, 2011


Haven't dumpster-divers, private detectives, and certain national security agencies been re-assembling shredded documents for a good long time now?

The difference here is automation. The FAQ makes it obvious that what they're looking for here is a way for infantry to "find these documents on the battlefield, take pictures of them, and send them to an analysis shop", and then get the original back quickly. It's not about experts reconstructing documents from the original scraps, it's about a computer program which can do it from 400 dpi files which contain many missing or low-quality fragments.
posted by vorfeed at 10:18 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


Pulping (shredding and mixing with water) seems to be the gold standard, short of burning.

I remember seeing something about how the CIA destroys its documents - shreds them, burns the shreds, then pulps the ashes and pumps the sludge into the nearby river. That seems relatively secure.

As for the Stasi thing, I think they shredded their files in long strips (could be wrong about that - but the linked article in the comments makes it look like some were just torn up). That's a lot less secure than the kind of micro-shredding that you can buy at any Staples today, and that DARPA would want to beat.
posted by Dasein at 10:58 AM on November 23, 2011


The technological challenge - finding a way to scan all of the tiny pieces in a uniform way, to get them ready for the algorithms to piece them together - may be just as hard of a problem here.
posted by carter at 10:59 AM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


carter: "The technological challenge - finding a way to scan all of the tiny pieces in a uniform way, to get them ready for the algorithms to piece them together - may be just as hard of a problem here."

This all came up on slashdot / reddit when it was announced, and the suggestion was a plexiglass air tube and a couple document cameras. Your shreds float up / down the cameras capture them.
posted by pwnguin at 11:10 AM on November 23, 2011


Aha, thanks pwnguin. Personally, I'm not sure that that would work. I was thinking of something like pairs of parallel static electrical plates to separate them out into single layers. But you may still have the problem of layers, overlaps, etc. Maybe they need another challenge, then.
posted by carter at 11:23 AM on November 23, 2011


Is no one else creeped out that they used red balloons?

(English, since they're not red in German, as I recall. Though I think the song's better in German.)
posted by hoyland at 11:25 AM on November 23, 2011


"Warfighters" is a very specific term of art within the (American, at least) military world. And we already had a semi-epic metatalk discussion about it here. Let's not get into this again, please.

I'll save you the trouble of following the link, everyone agreed that we would stick with 'babykillers' as a cross-service general term.
posted by biffa at 11:33 AM on November 23, 2011


Also, this is similar to the challenge Instagram has issued.

Not really. Instagram wasn't really shredding, it was cutting an image into strips digitally and then rearranging them. So all the tricky parts about the real world were just removed from the puzzle. OTOH, this challenge is using a cross-cut shredder and real scans of the resulting pieces. So it needs a lot more fuzziness and can't be solved by 10 lines of Perl.
posted by smackfu at 11:41 AM on November 23, 2011


Shredding, pulping, making the pulp into new paper, printing lorem ipsum on it, and then shredding that.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 11:43 AM on November 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


To fool, obviously; not to solve.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 11:44 AM on November 23, 2011


Yes, but the expertise gained should be much more valuable, not to mention that listing DARPA Challenge Winner on your resume (or even just Challenge Participant) will open a few doors along the career path.

What, "we won't pay what you're worth but the next guy will?"

That argument was faded years ago. Remember when Google tried to run a contest without proper compensation and then tried to argue that the "exposure" was reward enough? But as everyone argued, if Google isn't going to pay you for your work, who is? The same reasoning applies here.

And consider all the people who don't win - who worked for nothing.

The fact is that DARPA is trying to get millions of dollars worth of engineering time for $50K - and it's not even for a "good cause," it's for spying on other people.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:48 AM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


These challenges are really good at focusing academics, rather than corporations. To a corp, $50k is meaningless and a solution to this is worth more than $50k anyways, so they would be working on it anyways. For academics, it's something to work on that has a well stated problem and they can compete with other people and there is a leaderboard and they get to trumpet their wins. It's like catnip to them.
posted by smackfu at 12:18 PM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


The fact is that DARPA is trying to get millions of dollars worth of engineering time for $50K

This is a good point. DARPA is getting not just one, but a whole bucketful of competitive solutions to this problem for the bargain basement price of $50,000. There was discussion over on HN the other day about a $200,000 government contract for a custom smartphone app. How much engineering goes into a $200K smartphone app? Not much more than some badly edited webpages and a broken conversion tool.
posted by rh at 12:21 PM on November 23, 2011


The fact is that DARPA is trying to get millions of dollars worth of engineering time for $50K

I figure the lowball number is because they want low cost solutions and so many of their projects center around finding expensive solutions that opposing forces can't afford. Reading between the lines, the goal of the project is to establish a clear threat to the simple shredding techniques other regimes use, thereby raising the cost of doing classified military business.
posted by pwnguin at 12:28 PM on November 23, 2011


* Also, this is similar to the challenge Instagram has issued.

* Not really. Instagram wasn't really shredding, it was cutting an image into strips digitally and then rearranging them.


Plus, there is a lot of unique visual data in a strip of a picture, versus black text on a white page: the shreds could jumble not only the letters in a word, but also the shapes in a letter, which is complexity levels above picture strips.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:30 PM on November 23, 2011


"warfighters" ?

It's inclusive of mercenaries and spooks.
posted by pompomtom at 1:06 PM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]


The physical bit seems pretty simple. Just figure out some way of dumping a pile of shredded bits into a machine that deposits them in a single flat layer on a sheet of glass, where a camera will take hi-res photos of both sides. The rest is software.

The physical part is going to come from existing industrial processes. Like I'm sure it's somewhere on the way from chicken to nugget, or painting cars or filling tubes with toothpaste or something. The digital part is just getting enough resolution to see the paper fibers and match all that shit up, which I'm sure exists already too.
posted by danny the boy at 1:15 PM on November 23, 2011


From my time watching How It's Made, I would definitely agree with that. Industrial processes nowadays commonly use high-speed cameras to image each item, process the image, and then act on the item appropriately. For processing shredder pieces, I would probably shake the pieces apart, get them in a single file line on a conveyor, image them to make sure the shreds look right and aren't folded or on their side, then use an acrylic plate or something to flatten them and take the hi-rez image.
posted by smackfu at 1:46 PM on November 23, 2011


I remember seeing something about how the CIA destroys its documents - shreds them, burns the shreds, then pulps the ashes and pumps the sludge into the nearby river. That seems relatively secure.

Dump it into the river? They should turn it into compost and use it to grow a CIA garden. That would be both environmentally friendly and eerily poetic.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:49 PM on November 23, 2011 [3 favorites]


Score one for the husband who decided to start burning our documents when the shredder crapped out on us. Take that, unwanted credit card offers!
posted by emjaybee at 2:01 PM on November 23, 2011


If it's anything like the shredder here at work then these pages will still be half-intact. Easy as pie!
posted by tumid dahlia at 2:32 PM on November 23, 2011


Too easy! I did that in "under a killing moon"!
posted by racingjs at 2:43 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


My husband used to work for Sarnoff Corporation, which used to be RCA Labs. They participated in the DARPA challenges for automated vehicle driving. I wish I could remember all the stuff we talked about regarding the various approaches to the second Grand Challenge and the Urban Challenge, which were going on while he worked there. I'll point him at this thread and maybe he'll have time to post something over the long weekend.
posted by immlass at 4:21 PM on November 23, 2011


Rainbows End Librareome, anyone?
posted by BrashTech at 4:49 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


We always used heavy duty shredders and lubricated them with used motor oil. Lubricant, solvent and masking agent all in one. I think that would be a pretty good challenge to pick apart and reassemble.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 5:00 PM on November 23, 2011


The story goes the Iranians collected up the shredded remains and had skilled carpet weavers put them back together.

Carpets are woven on a loom in a complex process that involves one or two persons -- I fail to see how the skills would transfer. Especially since assembling the documents required people who could read, which is something not necessary to weave a carpet.

The shredders used in the embassy cut the papers in long strips and rather wide ones from the evidence in the link. My understanding is that it was done by the students who took over the embassy. If I recall correctly, the strips were matched one by one, strip to strip until a whole page could be assembled. The process was extremely time consuming, done by hand by a large group of highly motivated and literate people.
posted by y2karl at 7:58 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


Reading between the lines, the goal of the project is to establish a clear threat to the simple shredding techniques other regimes use, thereby raising the cost of doing classified military business.

I assume that reading between the lines, they're probably encouraging foreign military to use digital systems (because it's easier for the CIA to hack).
posted by amuseDetachment at 11:22 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


I fail to see how the skills would transfer. Especially since assembling the documents required people who could read, which is something not necessary to weave a carpet.

Yes, that's why I wrote "The story goes...". It's repeated across mulitple sources, but I'm skeptical they used weavers too.
posted by rh at 9:26 AM on November 24, 2011


It seems that the puzzle has been solved. Haven't seen how they did it yet. Iranian weavers, maybe?
posted by pwnguin at 12:10 PM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


The honorable mentions (PDF) are pretty amusing. Someone did one by hand, and someone else figured out what the drawing was of, without actually solving that puzzle.
posted by smackfu at 12:32 PM on December 2, 2011


All Your Shreds Are Belong To U.S. has won.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:10 PM on December 2, 2011


« Older If we trace liberal disappointment with President ...  |  American biologist Lynn Margul... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments