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Security & Privacy

Technology Helps Germany Reconstruct Its Painful History

The Stasi, the police arm of the East German government that crumbled in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, attempted to destroy millions of documents chronicling decades of spying on its own citizens. While many of the files are unrecoverable, Germans still want to know as much as much as they can about what they contained—over 70,000 have applied for access to the Stasi archives, prompting an effort to reconstruct shredded files. As reported by NPR’s Philip Reeves, the German government is using technology to piece together the remnants, many of which were torn by hand in the last panicked days of the East German regime. While some documents can be reconstructed manually, those that were ripped into tiny fragments are now being pieced together by a pattern recognition computer program called the E-puzzler, which maps pieces by looking at data like color, texture, fonts, and tear lines. The archivist in charge of the project says, “The E-puzzler works in the way that a person doing 1,000-piece puzzle would work.” But the program, like IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson, can process data at much higher speeds, which means that, bit by bit, a painful chapter in Germany’s history is becoming more legible.

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