Hacking the CIA

Picking Up the Pieces: “the art of reconstructing shredded documents has been around for as long as shredders have”.

This article in the New York Times reminded me of some old stories from the AI Lab at MIT. The AI Lab and the Lab for Computer Science occupied most of building NE43 just off campus in Cambridge. Years ago, the CIA leased the 3rd floor of the building. (I am not making this up).

Sharing the building with a bunch of hackers is not without its risks, however. The bathrooms and the elevators on each floor were open to the rest of the building. The CIA didn’t let the cleaning staff onto their floor, so they used to shred their documents, and put them in trash bags out next to the elevators.

Some of the hackers decided it would be fun to play with the Spook minds. They went down to the 3rd floor bathroom and waited for one of the agents to enter.

“So, how is that research project coming along?” one hacker asked the other.

“Really well. You know, our computer program can now reconstruct 90% of shredded documents!”

The CIA stopped putting out their trash that night. Two weeks later, they took delivery of a very expensive cross-shredding machine. The documents in the garbage bags were now shredded to a very fine confetti, almost like powder.

By the time I got there, they had moved out, but were still leasing the mostly vacant 3rd floor. Apparently, they only kept up the lease so they could protect their safe.

Not that there was anything in the safe, mind you. We were told that the safe was similar to one at Langley. I don’t know for sure. But I do know that when contractors installed air conditioning in the 4th floor machine room, some guy in 3-piece polyester came racing upstairs to stop them.
“You’re drilling into a CIA safe!”, he yelled. He took them downstairs to the vacant floor and questioned them for about an hour.

The CIA finally moved out a few years later. And they left their safe behind. The design must no longer be classified, because now anyone can go to the 3rd floor machine room and look at it. A huge, stainless steel door, permanently propped open. Safeguarding some valuable Sun servers for America.

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