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DARPA offers $50,000 prize for reading shredded messages

The $50,000 DARPA Shredder Challenge calls on participants to reconstruct handwritten messages that have been shredded beyond recognition, including this one.
The $50,000 DARPA Shredder Challenge calls on participants to reconstruct handwritten messages that have been shredded beyond recognition, including this one.DARPA

DARPA's latest tech challenge is offering $50,000 for a task worthy of secret agents: piecing together messages that have been shredded into thousands of bits.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon think tank that previously brought you multimillion-dollarrobo-car races and a nationwide hunt for red balloons, put five ripped-up puzzles online today to kick off its Shredder Challenge. If someone wins, and I'm betting that someone will, that would be good news and bad news for the Defense Department — and for folks like you and me.

"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 said in its contest announcement.

Here's how the contest works: Participants register via the Shredder Challenge website, and then download five bunches of files that are essentially screenshots of shredded-up documents, plus instructions. They'll have to figure out how to put the documents back together, either by using computer analysis or by matching up itty-bitty pieces of printouts. Then they'll have to send DARPA an email with scans of the completed puzzles, the answers to questions about each puzzle ... and an explanation of the reasoning process that led to the solution.

Each of the puzzles carries a point value, and an online leader board will track the scores of the top contestants. DARPA will announce the winner and the amount of the prize awarded on Dec. 5, based on the points earned as well as the time stamps for submissions.

Hundreds sign up

"We are all pretty excited about this one," Dan Kaufman, director of the Information Innovation Office, told me in an email. So are puzzle fans: Soon after the competition opened, DARPA warned in a Twitter update that, "due to interest in the Shredder Challenge, there may be a delay accessing" the puzzle website. The Web traffic jam eased once DARPA beefed up its bandwidth.

Kaufman said this afternoon that "registrations were at 240 when I last checked, and not slowing down."

When I spoke with Kaufman, he said no one had yet submitted an entry. He couldn't predict whether it would take hours or days for puzzle sleuths to submit solutions. That's what makes the exercise interesting.

Kaufman's a veteran of 2009's Red Balloon Challenge, which asked participants to figure out the locations of 10 red balloons scattered around the country. He recalled that there was similar uncertainty about the outcome back then: "We were torn between 'It will never be solved' and 'Somebody's gotta solve this.'"

It turned out that researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab figured out the locations in just under nine hours, winning $40,000 in the process. A research paper published this week in the journal Science laid out the MIT team's winning strategy: a system of "recursive incentives" that promised payoffs for those who discovered the balloons, as well as those who recruited the discoverers.

MIT's Alexander Pentland and his colleagues said the recursive-reward arrangement could be used for life-and-death searches — for example, to look for a missing child, a criminal at large or the survivors of a natural disaster.

Good news, bad news

Kaufman told me that the winner of the Shredder Challenge may well use a method that DARPA's own researchers haven't thought of. Such methods could be used to read documents that have been shredded by the bad guys, such as al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan. "Currently, this process is much too slow and too labor-intensive, particularly if the documents are hand-written," Kaufman said in a news release. "We are looking to the Shredder Challenge to generate some leap-ahead thinking in this area."

Better message-demangling methods also could be used by bad guys to reconstruct financial statements, credit card reports and other sensitive documents that consumers thought had been safely disposed of.

"I'm concerned about the privacy implications," my colleague at's Red Tape Chronicles, Bob Sullivan, told me today.

Kaufman acknowledged that the contest's outcome might make you feel less secure about what happens to their shredded documents. But if that's the case, it's better to know that up front instead of burying your head in the sand. "I would say the 'ostrich defense' is not a good one," he told me.

Who knows? Maybe the first thing to come out of DARPA's latest challenge will be a rush to buy shredders that grind paper into powder. What do you think? Weigh in with your comments below.

Other challenges from DARPA:

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