The Defense Department’s research and development branch has challenged the country’s computer programmers, crowd-sourcers and jigsaw-puzzlers to an un-shredding contest.
The mission: reassemble the pulverized fragments of five shredded documents.
The reward: $50,000 and military-strength bragging rights.
“The goal is to identify and assess potential capabilities that could be used by U.S. 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,” according to the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency’s Shredder Challenge website.
So far more than 8,000 groups have taken a crack at the spy-style challenge, some using visual-recognition computer software, some employing internet crowd-sourcing techniques that allow thousands of people to simultaneously join in the effort, and some who are going it solo, armed only with photo-editing software and a love for jigsaw puzzles.
“The team approach at first glance would seem to be the best way to go,” said Craig Landrum, the chief technical officer and co-founder of Blueridge Technologies, a document-imaging company in Virginia. “It’s a visual problem, and the more eyes you put on a visual problem, the easier it is to solve.”
But Landrum, a long-time puzzle enthusiast, saw the challenge as an opportunity for a jigsaw-lover like himself to excel because the one-month time frame was too short for a team to develop custom computer software.
“I am purely individual,” he said. “I have years and decades’ experience in working with digital imagery and a background in intelligence and code breaking, and I enjoy puzzles.”
Manuel Cebrian, a research scientist at the University of California- San Diego, has taken the opposite approach. Along with a team of UCSD scientists, he developed “crowd sourcing” software that uses the internet to bring in as many people as possible to piece the fragments together.
Using the $50,000 prize as an incentive, Cebrain’s group, which was in fourth place as of Monday, has promised to use the award money to pay participants that bring friends into the “game” and who correctly match corresponding pieces. Cebrain said there are currently 3,500 people, from Hong Kong to South America, working around the clock to solve the final puzzle.
“The main weapon for this is mobilizing people to solve the problem,” Cebrain said.
Cebrain is an old pro at DARPA competitions. He won the agency’s last challenge in which participants had to locate 10 red balloons hidden throughout the country.
“This is a step up from the previous challenge,” he said, adding that the un-shredding competition “could be one of the hardest puzzles ever proposed.”
“It is a test to the collective human problem solving abilities,” Cebrain said. “The question now is, Is social media good enough so that a problem that requires people all over the world with different skills to come in and solve the problem, is social media powerful enough to do it?”
Landrum, who was in fifth place as of Monday, said he expected DARPA to announce a winner as soon as Wednesday. According to the challenge’s online leader board, the team All Your Shreds Are Belong To U.S. had earned 42 of the possible 50 points, meaning they were partially finished with the final puzzle.
The last and most difficult document is three pages long and diced into more than 6,000 fragments. Landrum said he thought it would take “a solid 100 or 200 hours” to solve.
“It’s like putting together a 6,000-piece jigsaw puzzle when all the pieces look exactly the same,” he said.
The documents are all hand-written and shredded with different machines. The fragments were then laid out flat, scanned and uploaded to the DARPA website.
“The purpose was to try and research different techniques of reassembling these things to a degree that intelligence can be extracted from the page,” Landrum said. “They are completely artificial and fairly innocuous. We are not solving anything of national security import or anything.”
Landrum said government challenges like these are a good way take advantage of the creativity of the American people.
“I completely approve of this kind of effort by the government,” said Landrum. “Put out a challenge and let your citizens compete and let the best idea rise to the top.”