Saturday, December 3, 2011

DARPA's Shredder Challenge has been solved

The race to crack the world's hardest puzzle has finished - two days earlier than expected. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Shredder Challenge saw nearly 9,000 teams competing to reconstruct five shredded documents using a combination of computer science and jigsaw-solving skills, but one team surged ahead of the rest and were proclaimed the winners on Friday night, claiming a $50,000 prize in the process.

The team, known as "All Your Shreds Are Belong To U.S." is made up of three programmers based in San Francisco: Otavio Good, creator of the visual translation tool Word Lens; Luke Alonso, a mobile phone software developer and Keith Walker, who works on satellite software at Lockheed-Martin.

Their winning algorithm automatically suggested matching pieces of the shredded documents based on factors such as the shape of the rip or the marks on the paper. The trio then tasked a group of friends to assemble the suggestions by hand. "Our background writing computer vision, computer graphics, and general simulation software definitely helped us," explains Good.

"All Your Shreds are Belong to U.S." had been suspected of sabotaging another team in the competition headed up by Manuel Cebrian at the University of California, San Diego, based on an email he received following the attack. He says that the attacks also originated from San Francisco and the saboteur claimed to be using computer vision software similar to that used by the winning team. "I guess we've got pretty good circumstantial evidence," says Cebrian.

Good, however, strongly denies any involvement. "We worked our asses off to win this fair and square and it's unfortunate that someone who sabotaged UCSD's effort implied that they were us," he says. "I doubt that any of the claims they made about their identity were true. They were just causing trouble on the internet." Perhaps we'll just have to chalk it up to internet pranksters.

So with DARPA's documents reconstructed, are shredders now insecure? No, says Good. "The challenges that DARPA gave us were actually simple compared to if you have a bin full of lots of shredded pieces of paper. Reconstructing these documents was not easy at all. I don't think you have much to worry about with your shredded documents."

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