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Shredded Secret Police Files Being Reassembled 222

Posted by samzenpus
from the burn-the-papers-from-now-on dept.
An anonymous reader writes "German researchers at the Frauenhofer Institute said Wednesday that they were launching an attempt to reassemble millions of shredded East German secret police files using complicated computerized algorithms. The files were shredded as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and it became clear that the East German regime was finished. Panicking officials of the Stasi secret police attempted to destroy the vast volumes of material they had kept on everyone from their own citizens to foreign leaders."
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Shredded Secret Police Files Being Reassembled

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  • Uh-oh (Score:5, Funny)

    by Profane MuthaFucka (574406) * <busheatskok@gmail.com> on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @09:32PM (#19061375) Homepage Journal
    East Germany is fucked now.
    • Re:Uh-oh (Score:5, Interesting)

      by tezbobobo (879983) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @10:14PM (#19061757) Homepage Journal
      You could be right. Apparently, according to a radio report I heard some months ago now, this program and evidence has been in place for some time and the reason they haven't done anything is because of intese political pressure.
      • So, who is pressuring the Fraunhofner(sp?) Institute not to do this? Did Germany's Communist Party gain seats last election?
        • by macshit (157376) <[gro.ung] [ta] [selim]> on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:24PM (#19062285) Homepage
          So, who is pressuring the Fraunhofner(sp?) Institute not to do this? Did Germany's Communist Party gain seats last election?

          Er, what do you think happened to people who were part of the former power structure in east germany?

          Based on what I've heard from someone who lived in east germany at the time, there was a mad scramble to gain advantage when east germany fell, and despite some sort of attempts to hold the "bad guys" to account, there were many cases of things not quite working they way they were supposed to -- e.g. people successfully hiding their past, and even worse, people cynically using the system to gain personal advantage (e.g., denounce your [innocent] neighbor, grab his property in the confusion).

          As a result, there are almost certainly many people in positions of power in germany today who would rather like to keep details of the east german past hidden.
          • About 10% of the former one and only gdr political party founded the new all german kinda-communist party, the rest of them went to the christ democrats, the big german conservative party (pretty much the largest party now in germany)
            • About 10% of the former one and only gdr political party founded the new all german kinda-communist party, the rest of them went to the christ democrats, the big german conservative party (pretty much the largest party now in germany)

              This makes sense to me- I'm guessing (i.e. I could be completely wrong) that the 10% are the "true believers" in the communist ideology, while the other 90% were going along with the party since that was their only chance to get into power.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by slashbob22 (918040)

          So, who is pressuring the Fraunhofner(sp?) Institute not to do this? Did Germany's Communist Party gain seats last election?
          IIRC there has been a lot of pressure (political or legal) by those who could be implicated. I believe many of these records contain information on civilian informers who could now be Politicians and other influential people who wouldn't want this information to come out.
        • besides former Stasi collabporators/agents/etc. (as pointed out by several posts above mine), I bet (if East Germany intelligence was as good as it was supposed to be) there might be some Western leaders as well who would not like their secret files to be made public...

          Paul B.
          • Stasi files (Score:5, Interesting)

            by harmonica (29841) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @03:03AM (#19063739)
            there might be some Western leaders as well who would not like their secret files to be made public...

            No "might" necessary, there are Western leaders and others who don't want their Stasi (secret police) files public. Former West German chancellor Kohl successfully sued to keep his files under wraps.

            That's for the simple reason that those files often contain the most private details of what the Stasi had assembled using bugs and other means. Besides, nobody can easily check what is true and what they might have falsified in those files. After all, we're talking about a totalitarian regime which shot people trying to leave the country illegally.

            However, all that doesn't mean that there won't be investigations if German authorities find something interesting in those files. So some people do have to fear that their past surfaces, but not from publication of the files.

            Movie recommendation on the topic: this year's Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards, The Lives of Others [imdb.com].
            • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

              Movie recommendation on the topic: this year's Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards, The Lives of Others.

              Listen to harmonica. This movie, The Lives of Others, is a terrific movie, and a strong cautionary about what happens to people who live in surveillance societies.

              I think about the subtle way that my driving has changed ever since I got a traffic ticket in the mail for something I don't have any memory of having done. A camera must have seen be run a yellow-turning-red, I guess, which trigg

              • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

                by Nazlfrag (1035012)
                Reflect on the fact that the Stasi were using paper records, then look at our situation. We are under much heavier surveillance than East Germany was 20 years ago, it's just that we don't need every 4th person to be an informer. IMHO that's far more dangerous.
              • Now I get this funny, itchy feeling on the back of my neck that I'm being watched when I drive. It's not causing any trauma, but it's probably made me a more careful driver.

                This is one I bring up when people pull out the "if you're not doing anything wrong, why would you care if you're being monitored?" card.

                I compare it to the feeling I get when I'm driving and a cop pulls out behind me.
                Immediately I start thinking "Are my headlights working properly? Am I going the speed limit? Did I come to a complete st
            • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

              by KnuthKonrad (982937)

              No "might" necessary, there are Western leaders and others who don't want their Stasi (secret police) files public. Former West German chancellor Kohl successfully sued to keep his files under wraps. That's for the simple reason that those files often contain the most private details of what the Stasi had assembled using bugs and other means.

              I find it interesting in that case that Kohl at that time was involved in a big fund raising scandal [wikipedia.org]. As of today, he refused to name the donators of the money

              I a

              • by harmonica (29841)
                I find it interesting in that case that Kohl at that time was involved in a big fund raising scandal. As of today, he refused to name the donators of the money

                The Stasi files weren't updated after the GDR collapsed in 1989, while the "scandal money" donated to the CDU was given to it in the 1990s. Unless there are some additional links, I don't see the connection.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by eneville (745111)

      East Germany is fucked now.
      in soviet russia file shreds you!!
  • Jigsaw Puzzle (Score:5, Interesting)

    by biocute (936687) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @09:32PM (#19061379) Homepage
    Maybe someone could create an online jigsaw puzzle game, and let the internet people reassemble those docs.
  • Trust? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JackieBrown (987087) <dbroome@gmail.com> on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @09:36PM (#19061411)
    "Many important documents are slumbering in these sacks"

    And they will just re-shred the private, personal stuff, correct?
    • Re:Trust? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by shaitand (626655) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @09:51PM (#19061563) Journal
      Exactly, why is these guys having the information any better than German secret police? Most of this information is probably private and better off lost.

      • Re:Trust? (Score:5, Funny)

        by kestasjk (933987) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @10:37PM (#19061931) Homepage
        Oh no, we'll be invading the privacy of some dead/near-death OAPs! And we should shred Mozart's letters too, what would Mozart say if he knew we were reading his letters about ####ing his cousin?!

        Dead people don't care too much about their privacy; they're dead. Ask yourself "will I care about my privacy after I'm dead?" If you said yes you probably don't understand what death means.
        • Re:Trust? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @10:48PM (#19061993)
          If I were dead, I may not care about my personal information that would have affected me if I were alive. Though my personal information that may affect my family and friends who are still alive is another thing.
        • Re:Trust? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by shaitand (626655) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @10:49PM (#19062007) Journal
          'Oh no, we'll be invading the privacy of some dead/near-death OAPs!'

          We are talking about East Germany, not Nazi Germany. There could be dirt on people in their twenties in those files.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by bgarcia (33222)

            We are talking about East Germany, not Nazi Germany. There could be dirt on people in their twenties in those files.
            Considering East Germany was annexed in 1990, you're talking about secret files on three-year-olds.


            "Today, little Horst pooped in his pants, and didn't tell anybody."

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by autophile (640621)

            We are talking about East Germany, not Nazi Germany. There could be dirt on people in their twenties in those files.

            (BTW, reunification occurred in 1990).

            Researcher 1: We've put together the first document!
            Researcher 2: Hmm, it's about some kid named Hans, age 4.
            Researcher 1: Wow, Hans ran an underground printing press urging... what does this say?
            Researcher 2: ...urging a more Western approach towards toilet training?
            Researcher 1: And he demanded access to Barney.
            Researcher 2: That would send anyo

        • *thinks*

          *cancels meeting with attorney about Last Will and Testament*
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        Actually that data is only accessible by the office (called Birthler Behörde in German after its head, because the official name "Bundesbeauftragte für die Unterlagen des Staatssicherheitsdienstes der ehemaligen Deutschen Demokratischen Republik" is a bit long) who only grants access to the people, who were spied upon to find out, what was known and who did it. Journalists and researchers can request access and there is a process in place where the victim can deny the request.

        There is an addition

    • Re:Trust? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by shaitand (626655) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @09:54PM (#19061581) Journal
      You know what else I love? I love the way they are the vile communist evil secret east german police who spied on their citizens and foreign leaders. Yet our own wonderful friendly giant FBI keeps every scrap of information it gathers on private citizens and the CIA does the same for foreign leaders. Hell, our own secret police (the NSA) probably does both.

      • Re:Trust? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by timmarhy (659436) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @10:00PM (#19061645)
        because you know, the american agencies don't torture or abduct people... oh wait a sec! they do!
      • Re:Trust? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by owlnation (858981) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @10:35PM (#19061905)
        And as a matter of fact, not all the Stasi files are in Germany. The CIA swiped a significant number of them when The Wall fell. They returned some of them, but still retain quite a few.

        So yes, I agree, evil / trust is a merely question of perspective.
      • That's because you're only a "bad guy" if you lose.
        • Re:Trust? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Shihar (153932) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @02:07AM (#19063425)

          That's because you're only a "bad guy" if you lose.
          No you are the "bad guy" if you have to build a fucking wall around your nation then station it with mines and machine guns to keep people in it. Last time I checked, western Europe and the US never had to build a fucking wall to keep people from fleeing their nation in terror.

          Seriously people. Get a fucking grip and get over the moral relativism. It was bad. East Germany didn't throw build the Berlin wall for shits and giggles. People were not dancing in the street when it come down (on both sides) because it was the sad end of a merry social experience.
          • by Colin Smith (2679) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @07:02AM (#19064897)
            The Berlin wall ran *right* through the centre of Berlin. Through the middle of houses even. How else would you enforce a national border like that other than with a wall? Go see what's left of it some time.

            The wall itself wasn't to prevent people fleeing in terror, not initially anyway, but to prevent economic migration of people from the increasingly poor east to the wealthier west. My partner, an East German, reckons the ignorance and hyperbole about East Germany is laughable.

             
            • The wall itself wasn't to prevent people fleeing in terror, not initially anyway, but to prevent economic migration of people from the increasingly poor east to the wealthier west.

              "Economic migration" does sound a lot more reasonable than "fleeing in terror" -- but it's still flight, it still indicates fear, and the people were still walled in.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Um, no. The retention of the assembled file allows you to request your STASI file. When you do the personal information pertaining to others, except STASI and their informers, is blanked out.

      People aren't too concerned about the privacy aspects of the German government retaining the STASI files. They are no longer being maintained and, more importantly, no longer being acted upon. If you can't find a job in unified Germany it is because of economics, not because of your friend/neighbour/teacher's mutterings
  • by RealGrouchy (943109) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @09:38PM (#19061441)

    Some 16,250 sacks containing pieces of 45 million shredded documents were found and confiscated after the reunification of Germany in 1990. Reconstruction work began 12 years ago but 24 people have been able to reassemble the contents of only 323 sacks.
    Bah, just distribute them among nursing homes and tell the seniors it's a jigsaw puzzle.

    They'll have it assembled before you can say "Matlock"!

    - RG>
  • by Original Replica (908688) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @09:39PM (#19061459) Journal
    why didn't they also burn them if they really wanted them gone? C'mon they could make a person vanish, but they can manage to successfully destroy paper?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      The Berlin Wall and the East German government fell really fast and suddenly--there wasn't much time for the Stasi to clear out its office. The Stasi had to shred the papers anyway (imagine someone liberating a whole document from a bonfire) and didn't have time to arrange a controlled burn for all those papers.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by adona1 (1078711)
      The aim was to make a vast bonfire of secrets [news.com.au], but it proved impossible to organise the trucks to take the brown paper sacks to a quarry outside Magdeburg.
  • Iranian Revolution (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @09:45PM (#19061515)
    The Iranian revolutionaries did the same thing to CIA documents in the embassy. The re-assembled documents are available at www.memoryhole.org

  • by biocute (936687) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @09:48PM (#19061539) Homepage
    Secret police reassembles shredded researchers?
    • by solafide (845228)
      No, then in Democratic Germany researchers would have to reassemble shredded secret police, and we aren't dealing with shredded secret police. ;)
      • by gringer (252588)
        No, according to the title of the /. summary, we're dealing with reassembly of the *files* on those Shredded Secret Police.

        Look out, the Shredded Secret Police were out to get you!
  • by u-bend (1095729) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @09:54PM (#19061589) Homepage Journal
    I think that the pursuit of historical documentation and a better understanding of a strange and dangerous period of the near past should justify the project alone. As someone who grew up as an American in that neck of the woods, pre and post Soviet demise, it's going to be really interesting to see what they find.
  • [...]vast volumes of material they had kept on everyone from their own citizens to foreign leaders[...]

    Wonder if the purpose is to find out what East Germany was doing for posterity's sake? Or might the purpose be for some future use?
    • The purpose is historical. But since the main reason files were shredded was to hide the identities and crimes committed by state employees and ordinary people who spied against their neighbours and caused them to be tortured and killed, this has the potential for explosive consequences.
      • Re:Hmmm... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by owlnation (858981) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @10:25PM (#19061841)

        But since the main reason files were shredded was to hide the identities and crimes committed by state employees and ordinary people who spied against their neighbours and caused them to be tortured and killed, this has the potential for explosive consequences.
        Yes, it does indeed. Note that nearly one person in every four in East Berlin was Stasi, or an informant of some sort. However, very few have ever been identified. There will, for certain, be currently prominent or influential people listed in those documents who spied for the Stasi.

        Piecing these together is going to make a lot of people very nervous - as indeed it should.
  • should take a few hundred years. after that, the computer will be able to reassemble all of the documents in 30 seconds. whew!
  • Holy shit, all those cliches about "harder than unscrambling an egg" are being made obsolete by computers. Can I also have my ass unkicked?
             
  • by erice (13380) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @10:17PM (#19061789) Homepage
    This could be a little disturbing, if it works. How long before the technology trickles down to the identity thief around the corner? We are now told to shred everything. What happens when shredding is not enough?
    • cross shredding (cutting in both directions rather than just along the length) makes it harder to reassemble but probablly not impossible. i dunno if theese documents were just plain shredded or cross shredded.

      if you really want paper destroyed your best options are probablly burning and pulping.

      another thing you can do is spread the shredded material out, if some goes in your bin at home, some in the local tip and some in your bin at the office then its going to be much harder for one person to get all the
      • by imsabbel (611519)
        Most of them were only ripped into pieces by hand, into a few douzend pieces at most.

        You _could_ even try to reassemble them by hand, but the sheer mass makes that prohibitive, time-wise.
    • by Yartrebo (690383)
      Throw it into a wood stove - and hope that no toxic inks or bleach is used in the production of said paper, for your neighbors' sake.

      For a more environmentally benign method of destruction, pulp it, and if you have no use for low grade ink contaminated paper pulp, you can always put it out in the recycling with your newspapers.
    • not cross-cut but just in strips like old shredders used to do. That means the job is infinitely easier.

      Also, mix your bin around. Add multiple papers, and take out others so all the pieces are not in the same place or thrown out at the same time. The chances a thief can economically put together those shreds from a vast assortment drops to almost nil when it's not guaranteed the entire paper is even there.

      Unless you are Bill Gates, you are not interesting enough to waste time on. The thief will move on
    • by bitingduck (810730) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @01:45AM (#19063315) Homepage

      This could be a little disturbing, if it works. How long before the technology trickles down to the identity thief around the corner? We are now told to shred everything. What happens when shredding is not enough?
      I crosscut shred everything, then I put it into the worm composter for the worms to eat. I then feed the worms to pet ducks, and twice a year feed the ducks to guests. I send the guests on camping trips to grizzly country with slabs of bacon for pillows. By the time the bears are done there are only homeopathic traces of the original information from the documents.

      • That was awesome, thank you.
      • by nietsch (112711) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @05:37AM (#19064531) Homepage Journal
        I guess part of the documents you have to dispose of are the guest lists of your twice yearly duck-fest?

        It would only be homeopathetic if you follow the correct diluting procedure: bang the container 10 times on a leather cushion to mix, throw away the contents and fill with new alcohol. So you'd have to let your guests eat the duck, beat them up with a leather cushion, make them give up their stomach content, fill them with alcohol and beat them up again. Rinse lather and repeat for more potent medicine...
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by thogard (43403)
      Putting it back together once scanned is easy. The hard part is scanning it.
      You start by run length encoding all the edges. If you do it right, you get the same 32 bit number even if your scaling is off by a bit. Then you build a data mesh and match up all the edges that have the same edge code. You can also build edge codes using a technique much like how computers recognise Morse code.
      The real trick is the scanning each bit clearly without any overlay.
      There are places that will do this for you. A few
    • by vidarh (309115)
      Line shredders stopped being enough ages ago. The Vietnamese for instance are known to have manually reassembled lots of documents that had been shredded as the last US officials were evacuated.

      Unless you use a crosscut shredder all you are doing is raising the bar from casual snooping to requiring some dedication.

  • The Document Crematory!! Incinerates all of your sensitive documents, transforming them into completely unreadable ash.
  • by Comatose51 (687974) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @10:22PM (#19061827) Homepage
    Did anyone else read the Wired Article about how the CIA got some Americans out of Iran using a fake cover story about producing a Sci-Fi movie in Iran [wired.com]? After the Iranians took our embassy during their revolution, they hired a bunch of rug weavers to reassemble our shredded documents according to article. Wonder how successful they were...
  • Rainbow's End (Score:3, Informative)

    by ObjetDart (700355) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @10:26PM (#19061855)
    Reminds me of that somewhat bizarre subplot in Vinge's latest novel "Rainbow's End" where there was a big project to digitize all the university libraries, and some guy came up with the fastest way to do it: just throw all the books into a giant shredder, and then gave lots of cameras taking pictures of every last bit from every andle as it comes blowing out the other end...then re-assemble it all in a computer.

    Seemed a little far-fetched to me, even for Vinge.

  • A use for the Minority Report style interface. Something tells me they aren't using Silverlight though!
  • So say you had a document that was shredded the standard way, like strips of paper.

    Put 'em in a hopper, and have an assembly line with a narrow page scanner scan 'em up and store them on a hard drive.

    Then write an app that scans the left & right edges of the paper. Look for a similar pattern of edges(ink) on any other strip. Try to put 'em together and see if it forms words. Lather, rinse, repeat. Sounds like a jigsaw puzzle.

    Would that un-shred them?
  • by fishbowl (7759) on Wednesday May 09, 2007 @11:23PM (#19062269)
    If you get a chance to see Das Leben der Anderen ("The Lives of Others", http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0405094/ [imdb.com]), definitely do not miss it. It is a slightly fantastic conflation of plausible events tied together with a story about fictional characters, but it is said, by people who lived in DDR at the time, to be chillingly accurate (though not without problems, it's a movie after all.)

    I'd certainly enjoy hearing from anyone who lived in the DDR, who has seen this film; particularly if they had personal interaction with the STASI.

  • by chicago_scott (458445) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @12:24AM (#19062781) Journal
    I hope that the people reassembling the files don't misuse them in the same way that the East German government did. Wouldn't it be better to permanently destroy the files since they shouldn't have been compiled by the East German government in the first place?
  • by hedley (8715) <hedley@pacbell.net> on Thursday May 10, 2007 @12:59AM (#19063019) Journal
    I was curious on the Stasi after enjoying the recent(USwise) release of the "Lives of Others" It won an academy award. Anyway, Funders book covers this topic of the sacks of shredded documents. The statistics were rediculous and 100's of years would be needed at the rate they were getting through the sacks. Kindof like the Blechley park people, recruitment seeks special skills, in this case, people who enjoyed board puzzles were hired.

    The book is a good read, this systematic control they had on a society from cradle to grave produced some very odd people and behaviours.

    Check out the film also.

    Hedley
  • ...that fire is what you use to destroy documents properly
    • They're very anal about documenting frickin' _everything_, generating _huge_ amounts of paper. While one sheet of paper might burn nicely, burning several _tons_ of the stuff is a different matter altogether.
  • read stasiland (Score:4, Informative)

    by Cederic (9623) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @07:27AM (#19065053) Journal

    People have been manually trying to recreate these files for years. Automation is the obvious next step, albeit not necessarily a simple one.

    One use for them is trying to track down people that 'disappeared'.

    The book Stasiland which mentions these efforts is superb, well worth reading.
  • by icepick72 (834363) on Thursday May 10, 2007 @09:52AM (#19066587)
    using complicated computerized algorithms.


    But are the computer algorithms also "pretty"?
    Are they heavily "optimized"?
    Or "lazy heuristic" algorithms?
    Maybe they're inauspicious and pink

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