A paper shredder is a mechanical device used to cut paper into chad, typically either strips or fine particles. Government organizations, businesses, and private individuals use shredders to destroy private, confidential, or otherwise sensitive documents. Privacy experts often recommend that individuals shred bills, tax documents, credit card and bank account statements, and other items which could be used by thieves to commit fraud or identity theft.
The first paper shredder is credited to prolific inventor Abbot Augustus Low (May 12, 1844 – 1912) of Horseshoe, located on the Western shore of Horseshoe Lake, in Piercefield, New York. His patent for a "waste paper receptacle" to offer an improved method of disposing of waste paper was filed on February 2, 1909, and received the U.S. patent number 929,960 on August 3, 1909. Low’s invention was never manufactured, however.
Adolf Ehinger's paper shredder, based on a hand-crank pasta maker, was manufactured in 1935 in Germany. Supposedly he needed to shred his anti-Nazi propaganda to avoid the inquiries of the authorities. Ehinger later marketed his shredders to government agencies and financial institutions converting from hand-crank to electric motor. Ehinger's company, EBA Maschinenfabrik, manufactured the first cross-cut paper shredders in 1959 and continues to do so to this day as EBA Krug & Priester GmbH & Co. in Balingen.
The U.S. embassy in Iran used strip-cut paper shredders to reduce paper pages to strips before the embassy was taken over in 1979 (though not entirely successfully: some documents have been reconstructed from the strips, see below). After Colonel Oliver North told Congress that he used a Schleicher Intimus 007 S cross-cut model to shred Iran-Contra documents, sales for that company increased nearly 20 percent in 1987.
Until the mid-1980s, it was rare for paper shredders to be used by non-government entities. After the 1988 Supreme Court decision in California v. Greenwood, in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the warrantless search and seizure of garbage left for collection outside of a home, paper shredders became more popular among U.S. citizens with privacy concerns. Anti-burning laws, concern over landfills, industrial espionage, and identity theft concerns resulted in increased demand for paper shredding.
The US Federal Trade Commission estimates that 9 million cases of identity theft take place per year in the USA alone and recommends that individuals defend themselves against identity theft by shredding financial documents before disposal.
News agencies have driven awareness of information theft to the extent that most consumers, healthcare organizations and businesses understand the importance of destroying confidential information. Also, information privacy laws like FACTA, HIPAA and the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act are driving shredder sales, as businesses and individuals take steps to comply to avoid legal complications.
Shredders range in size and price from small and inexpensive units designed for a certain amount of pages, to large units used by commercial shredding services that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and can shred millions of documents per hour. Some shredders used by a commercial shredding service are built into a shredding truck.
The general small shredder is an electrically powered device, but there some that are manually powered, such as special scissors with multiple blade pairs and hand-cranked rotary shredders.
These machines are classified according to the size and shape of the shreds they produce. (As a practical matter, this is also a measure of the degree of randomness or entropy they conduct.) All types of shredders can range in size from standard scissors and other hand-operated devices all the way up to truck-sized shredders. There are also shredder selector sites that can help consumers choose a shredder that is appropriate for their needs.
- Strip-cut shredders, the least secure, use rotating knives to cut narrow strips as long as the original sheet of paper. Such strips can be reassembled by a determined and patient investigator or adversary, as the product (the destroyed information) of this type of shredder is the least randomized. It also creates the highest volume of waste inasmuch as the strips are not compressed.
- Cross-cut or confetti-cut shredders use two contra-rotating drums to cut rectangular, parallelogram, or lozenge (diamond-shaped) shreds.
- Particle-cut shredders create tiny square or circular pieces.
- Cardboard shredders are designed specifically to shred corrugated material into either strips or a mesh pallet.
- Disintegrators and granulators repeatedly cut the paper at random until the particles are small enough to pass through a mesh.
- Hammermills pound the paper through a screen.
- Pierce-and-tear shredders have rotating blades that pierce the paper and then tear it apart.
- Grinders have a rotating shaft with cutting blades that grind the paper until it is small enough to fall through a screen.
There are numerous standards for the security levels of paper shredders, including:
- DIN 66399
- Level P-1 = ≤12 mm wide strips of any length
- Level P-2 = ≤6 mm wide strips of any length
- Level P-3 = ≤2 mm wide strips of any length or ≤320 mm² particles (of any width)
- Level P-4 = ≤160 mm² particles with width ≤ 6 mm
- Level P-5 = ≤30 mm² particles with width ≤ 2 mm
- Level P-6 = ≤10 mm² particles with width ≤ 1 mm
- Level P-7 = ≤5 mm² particles with width ≤ 1 mm
- United States Department of Defense (DoD)
- United States National Security Agency/CSS 02-01 = 1 × 5 mm required for all U.S. government classified document destruction starting 1 October 2008.
Historically, the General Services Administration (GSA) set paper shredder guidance in the Interim Federal Specification FF-S-001169 dated July 1971, superseded by standard A-A-2599 for classified material, which was canceled in February 2000. GSA has not published a new standard since.
A mobile shredding truck is a box truck with an industrial-size paper shredder mounted inside the box, typically in the front section of the box, closest to the cab. The box is divided into two sections: the shredding equipment area, and the payload area for storage of the shredded materials. These trucks have been designed to shred up to 8,000 lb (3,600 kg) of paper an hour. Mobile shredding trucks can have a shredded material storage capacity of 6,000 to 15,000 lb (2,700 to 6,800 kg) of shredded paper. Office paper is the typical material being shredded, but with increasing security concerns customers also request shredding of CDs, DVDs, hard drives, credit cards, and uniforms, among other things. There are four major types of mobile shredding trucks — pierce-and-tear (most popular), grinder, hammermill, and generator-powered with cross cut or strip cut options.
A shredding kiosk is an automated retail machine (or kiosk) that allows public access to a commercial or industrial-capacity paper shredder. This is an alternative solution to the use of a personal or business paper shredder, where the public can use a faster and more powerful shredder, paying for each shredding event rather than purchasing shredding equipment. A shredding kiosk with industrial shredder hardware can have a feed capacity many times greater than personal shredders. Variations of payment systems depend on if the kiosk is truly standalone; they can include paying by time of use or by pre-weighing material, and may include a payment system as part of the machine, or use may be controlled by the kiosk's host location.
Some companies outsource their shredding to shredding services. These companies either shred on-site, with mobile shredder trucks or have off-site shredding facilities. Documents that need to be destroyed are often placed in locked bins that are emptied periodically.
In Canada, there are no provincial or federal regulations for the operations of the industry. Companies can voluntarily join National Association for Information Destruction (NAID) where they get bi-yearly announced and unannounced audits.
As the demand for commercial and personal shredders grows, shredder manufacturers continue to develop new features that improve the shredder user's experience with efficiency, convenience and safety.
- Jam proof shredders – many new shredders have means to detect paper thickness to avoid paper jams by rejecting paper that is fed over capacity, and have more powerful motors to handle jumbled or misfed paper.
- Safety sensor – The shredder automatically shuts off when hands are too close to the paper entry.
- Silent operation – Shredders designed for noise reduction in shared workspaces or department copy rooms.
- Energy savings – Shredders that enter a power-saving sleep mode when not in use.
- Mess reduction – the shredder features an automatic cleaning cycle that prevents paper build-up on cutters. To eliminate overflow, a sensor lets the user know when to empty the bin while a sliding flap contains dangling shreds.
- Animal bedding — Animal bedding is one of the most economical and ecological methods of recycling. Waste paper or card (like news print, off cuts, or cardboard boxes) can be shredded and bagged to produce a warm and comfortable bed for animals. This then decomposes very quickly on a muck heap.
- Security shredding — Document destruction, to prevent identity theft was one of the earliest uses of shredders. Shredding into strips, or dicing documents, makes it nearly impossible for the documents to be read after shredding.
- Void fill and packaging — Shredded material can be used both as an aesthetic and functional product. Shredded cellophane and shredded cardboard in elastic mat form can be used to package high street goods. Shredded cardboard in mat and strip form can be used as a void fill for the transportation of goods.
- Cardboard briquettes — Briquettes are quickly becoming a viable alternative to coal and other non renewable fuels.
- Waste reduction — Shredding waste material generally reduces waste volume by up to 75%, which, for the remaining material that reaches landfill, is much less robust and takes up less room in fill.
- Insulation — In Japan, finely shredded newsprint is often mixed with flame-retardant chemicals and glue to create a spray-able insulation material for the construction of buildings to be applied on wall interiors and on the underside of roofing.
Shredding at high levels continues in government agencies, too. According to the report of the Paul Volcker Committee, between April and December 2004, Kofi Annan's Chef de Cabinet, Iqbal Riza, authorized thousands of United Nations documents shredded, including the entire chronological files of the Oil-for-Food Programme during the years 1997 through 1999.
The Union Bank of Switzerland used paper shredders to destroy evidence that their company owned property stolen from Jews during the Holocaust by the Nazi government. The shredding was disclosed to the public through the work of Christoph Meili, a security guard working at the bank who happened to wander by a room where the shredding was taking place. Also in the shredding room were books from the German Reichsbank. They listed stock accounts for companies involved in the holocaust, including BASF, Degussa, and Degesch. They also listed real-estate records for Berlin properties that had been forcibly taken by the Nazis, placed in Swiss accounts, and then claimed to be owned by UBS. Destruction of such documents was a violation of Swiss laws.
In some cases it is technically possible to reassemble the pieces of shredded documents; the feasibility of such a project is a cost-to-benefit calculation. If the chad is not further randomized, the strips that belonged to the same document tend to come out of the shredder close to each other and remain roughly in that configuration. Furthermore, when the documents are fed to the shredder in a way that the lines of text are not perpendicular to the shredder blades, portions of text may remain legible on the strips.
If the shredder doesn't cut paper small enough, confidential documents could be removed from the trash, reassembled and read. This can lead to corporate espionage as dumpster diving is the easiest way for professional thieves to steal sensitive information from businesses. For this reason, a host of new shredders provide protection from information theft by cutting paper into pieces significantly smaller than the length of a staple.
These micro-cut shredders make it difficult for criminals to assemble a document by cutting a piece of paper into about 3,770 bits versus the average confetti-cut shredder, which cuts a piece of paper into 300 pieces or the average strip-cut shredder, which cuts a piece of paper into 34 strips.
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After the Iranian Revolution and the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, Iranians enlisted local carpet weavers who reconstructed the pieces by hand. The recovered documents would be later released by the Iranian regime in a series of books called "Documents from the US espionage Den". The US government subsequently improved its shredding techniques by adding pulverizing, pulping, and chemical decomposition protocols.
Modern computer technology considerably speeds up the process of reassembling shredded documents. The strips are scanned on both sides, and then a computer determines how the strips should be put together. Robert Johnson of the National Association for Information Destruction has stated that there is a huge demand for document reconstruction. Several companies offer commercial document reconstruction services. For maximum security, documents should be shredded so that the words of the document go through the shredder horizontally (i.e. perpendicular to the blades). Many of the documents in the Enron Accounting scandals were fed through the shredder the wrong way, making them easier to reassemble.
In 2003, there was an effort underway to recover the shredded archives of the Stasi, the East German secret police. There are "millions of shreds of paper that panicked Stasi officials threw into garbage bags during the regime's final days in the fall of 1989". As it took three dozen people six years to reconstruct 300 of the 16,000 bags, the Fraunhofer-IPK institute has developed the "Stasi-Schnipselmaschine" (Stasi snippet machine) for computerized reconstruction and is testing it in a pilot project.
In 2011, DARPA’s Shredder Challenge called upon computer scientists, puzzle enthusiasts, and anyone else with an interest in solving complex problems, to compete for up to $50,000 by piecing together a series of shredded documents. The Shredder Challenge consisted of five separate puzzles in which the number of documents, the document subject matter and the method of shredding were varied to present challenges of increasing difficulty. To complete each problem, participants were required to provide the answer to a puzzle embedded in the content of the reconstructed document. The overall prizewinner and prize awarded was dependent on the number and difficulty of the problems solved. DARPA declared a winner on December 2, 2011 (the winning entry was submitted 33 days after the challenge began) - the winner was "All Your Shreds Are Belong To U.S." using a combination system that used automated sorting to pick the best fragment combinations to be reviewed by humans.
Document shredders display certain device-specific characteristics, "fingerprints", like the exact spacing of the blades, the degree and pattern of their wear. These can be reconstructed from the minute variations of size of the paper strips and the microscopic marks on their edges, and by comparison with the strips produced by known shredders, the individual shredder that was used to destroy a given document may be determined. Jack Brassil, a researcher for Hewlett-Packard, works on a project for making shredders more easily traceable. (Cf. the forensic identification of typewriters.)
Chemical decomposition or vermicomposting can subvert forensic identification, but has higher cost or time requirements and creates other forensic evidence (such as purchase of chemicals).
Injury risk with residential use
As with any motorized cutting equipment, there is a risk of injury. As shredders migrated to home environments with children and pets, shredder safety became an important issue. As early as 1985, personal injuries have occurred as a result of consumers using shredders. As the number of paper shredders per household increased, so did the number of accidents. From January 2000 through September 2005, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) received 50 reports of incidents involving finger amputations, lacerations, and other severe injuries from paper shredders. The majority of injuries happened to children under the age of five.
To increase consumer awareness of these potential safety hazards, two important safety alerts were issued:
- Fall 2005 – Consumer Product Safety Council Shredder Safety Alert
- February 2006 – American Academy of Pediatrics Shredder Safety Alert
Although designed with a narrow opening to the cutting wheels, shredders still pose a danger to pets and small children. Children as young as four months of age have the ability to imitate adults. As children grow older, this tendency to mimic adult behavior increases and parents might not anticipate the dangers of children accidentally activating a shredder. This puts children at risk for serious injury, even with adult supervision. Children’s fingers can easily be pulled into the paper entry through the force of the shredding mechanism.
Many new shredders on the market now feature improved safety features:
- Safety sensor — this technology ensures the shredder automatically shuts off when hands are too close to the paper entry. The sensor at the paper entry senses the electric field around humans and larger pets. When this electric field is detected, the shredder instantly shuts down. As soon as the electric field is removed, the shredder starts up again.
- Slimmer paper entry – this reduces the chance of fingers getting pulled into the shredding mechanism. The entry can also be made of an inflexible material to prevent the opening from widening under pressure.
- Safety lock – this safety feature puts the shredder into a safe, inactive mode to prevent children from activating the shredder mechanism. The adult user simply locks the activation switch in the "off" position.
- Safety flap – this flap covers cutters when the shredder head is removed from the wastebasket.
- Safety interlock switch – this switch ensures the shredder will not activate when the shredder head is removed from the wastebasket.
Many home shredders can be left in a "stand-by" mode that will start the cutting process when anything is inserted into the feed slot. In homes with small children or pets, simply keeping the shredder unplugged while not in use can also reduce any risk.
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