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Is it Possible to Reconstruct Shredded Documents?

Posted Date: April 26, 2017 By: Andrew Blau

Shredded Document Reconstruction

The thought of reconstructing shredded paper invokes images of long, solitary hours spent sifting through paper shreds and painstakingly lining up all the tiny strips of letters and pictures.

If you've ever shredded a document that contains private information, the thought of someone successfully piecing it back together probably concerns you. Dumpster divers and information thieves could use your reconstructed documents to steal your identity, your money or your business secrets. Unfortunately, under the right circumstances, some shredded documents can be reconstructed. Document reconstruction requires special tools on the part of the security thief, but it also usually requires a lack of diligence on the part of the victim.

Image of a reconstructed shredded document seized from the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Document seized from the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 by Iranian students (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Reassembling Shredded Documents by Hand

Reassembling the shreds of a destroyed document used to take many long and patient hours, but it was still possible.

Photo of shredded documents at the US Embassy (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most famous examples of reconstructing shredded materials occurred after the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. When the last CIA officers left, Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran and spent years deciphering the shreds of documents left behind, including intelligence reports and operational accounts. The documents were eventually released to the public, causing damage to US national security interests for years to come. (These events were dramatized in the Oscar-winning film, Argo.)

"Shredding the evidence" was again in the public spotlight during the 2001 Enron scandal. Enron executives attempted to cover their tracks by destroying paper trails, but their documents were reconstructed by the FBI and SEC and used as evidence in the case against them. It is worth noting that the Enron case also led to the enactment of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which includes provisions increasing criminal penalties for destroying, altering, or fabricating records in federal investigations.

In these early days of manual reassembly, most paper shredding machines created vertical strips. If they had employed pierce and tear or cross-cut technology, the tiny remnants would have made reassembly an exponentially more difficult task.

Shredded Document Reconstruction Using Computer Software

In our age of booming technology, the risk of hacking and data breaches includes the use of (excuse the pun) cutting-edge software programs to reconstruct shredded documents. These programs use matching algorithms to intelligently piece the remains of shredded papers back together after they have been scanned. This form of artificial intelligence works with a speed that changes the process of document reconstruction from one which used to take days, weeks and even years to a high-tech enterprise which can achieve the task in a small fraction of the time.

Shredded document reconstruction technology has become even more well-known since a DARPA competition successfully encouraged programmers to develop accurate "unshredding" technology. (DARPA is an agency housed within the Pentagon that is also responsible for famous innovations like GPS, voice-recognition technology, and the Internet.) The unshredding challenge was meant to "assess potential capabilities that could be used in war zones, but might also identify vulnerabilities to sensitive information that is protected by shredding practices throughout the U.S. national security community."

While this challenge aimed to create a great tool for "the good guys," the success of the challenge (the $50,000 prize went to a team called "All Your Shreds Are Belong To U.S.") still illustrates how advanced software in the wrong hands could be used against a business which isn't sufficiently protecting their sensitive information.

How to Prevent Shredded Document Reconstruction

Even though software exists that can piece shreds back together, it can't handle everything. For one thing, smaller shreds make it harder to put the original document back together, so it's imperative to employ pierce and tear or cross-cut shredding.

It can also be nearly impossible to sort out the pieces of a single document when the shreds are mixed with hundreds or even thousands of other documents. Reconstructing paper from one source with one frame of reference is easier than sifting through pieces of paper from many sources and trying to connect them. Imagine if you had to sift through mountains of puzzle pieces from many different puzzles in order to put a jigsaw puzzle together. This is a huge advantage for those using professional shredding.

Remember, too, that all shredders are NOT created equal. Short of disposing of sensitive documents without any shredding, common strip-shredders found at office supply stores are your least secure option. You're much better off trusting a professional shredder that can turn your documents into tiny shreds that dramatically decrease your risk of an information breach.

Shredding companies should also guarantee that your documents won't turn into public confetti at the Thanksgiving Day Parade—yes, that famous Police Department "oops" actually happened just a few years ago. So be sure you know where your shreds end up after they leave your facility.

At Shred One, we shred millions of pounds of paper every month, using high-grade pierce and tear and cross-cut technology. This means your shreds are small and mixed in huge piles that would take years to sort through. As a AAA NAID Certified company, we are required to dispose of shredded paper in a responsible manner. Our shredded paper is turned into pulp—at which point it is really no longer paper; it becomes a sloppy, soupy mess—which is then recycled into other paper products. It cannot be used for animal bedding, filling cartons, or Thanksgiving confetti. We also provide a Certificate of Destruction (view PDF sample) as proof of your commitment to data security.

Partner with a Professional Shredding Company

Partnering with a certified, trusted professional is an important first step to ensuring the security of your business accounts and information.

Shred One provides document destruction services to businesses in a variety of industries in an effort to protect business and consumer information and keep businesses compliant with HIPAA, FACTA and other industry regulations.

To learn more, contact Shred One and request a Free Quote.

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