Do You Like Puzzles? Play the Art of Stasi Game


Photo by Adam Lederer — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Who would have thought that the Stasi could create so much fun?

In one of the more artful uses of technology, an ingenious computer program is putting together what Stasi tore apart.

As the German Democratic Republic was collapsing in 1989, staff at the East Germany’s State Security Service (Stasi) was busy destroying the Normannenstrasse headquarter’s most precious jewels — documents. They began to shred the papers, but then the shredders broke down from overuse. Next they tried drowning the papers, but the plumbing became overwhelmed. Finally, they did what any of us would do: they began to tear up each paper by hand.

Now, approximately 600 million scraps of paper, some only a few millimeters long, represent 45 million A4 pages. The shreds were recovered from the building in the 16,250 bags the Stasi staff had crammed full.

According to Bertram Nickolay, Head of the Department of Security and Testing Technologies at the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology in Berlin, if one were to organize matching up the shreds by hand it would take thirty people anywhere from 600 to 800 years to piece together each and every document.

His company has designed the pattern-matching technology to scan, sort, and complete each puzzle. Using sixteen computers, the process takes each bag as a group and then identifies each scrap based on the size, shape, and color of the paper, the type of ink, the texture of the writing, typed or handwritten, and if handwritten the style of the writer. Pages can range from eight to thirty pieces. Nickolay’s team has also made sure that the computer program is learning from experience as the pieces are not always a perfect fit from the tearing by hand. Already, two years into the task 400 bags are in the bag, as it were.

You can petition the BStU (Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic) to find out if there is a document on you. They documented not only their own citizens, but many travelers - fellow or not.

Should we send a thank you note to the former Stasi staff for helping to move our technology forward?

Think about how this process could be used to reassemble other artifacts of the world’s cultures.

Another take away: in a world where it appears rather easy to intercept/reveal electronic communications, maybe the handwritten piece of paper is the most private method of communicating.

All you need is pen and paper. (Burn bag not included.)

- Bill Reichblum

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