WORLDBEAT: Piecing together the Stasi puzzle

Pattern recognition technology developed by a renowned German research institute could help piece together what must be the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle: 600 million pieces of confidential documents hastily destroyed by East Germany’s infamous Stasi secret police in the dying days of the communist regime between late 1989 and early 1990.

The fragments, tucked away in more than 16,000 bags, are all that remain of a massive pile of documents that Stasi members — in a bid to cover up the organization’s tracks — tore up by hand as their shredders choked under the massive load of paper. Many of the documents contain sensitive material about their informants and the people they spied on.

Around a dozen people are presently sifting through the paper scraps, trying manually to piece together the Stasi puzzle. Although they’ve been at work for nine years, at the current pace, they’ll need at least another 400 years to complete the task, according to Bertram Nickolay, director of security recognition research at the Berlin-based Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology.

“After seeing a report about this mammoth task on television, I thought we could come up with a much faster solution,” he says. “And we have.”

Nickolay and his team have developed pattern-recognition algorithms to piece together documents from millions of fragments. The German agency in charge of Stasi records plans to use the Fraunhofer technology as soon as the government approves

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