Not a Shred

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   January 16, 2020

Until quite recently, when you wanted to destroy paper and make certain that nothing on it could ever again be read, the preferred method was to burn it. That is still your surest recourse – but burning is now generally in disfavor, because it means polluted air. So, a relatively new manner of destruction has become popular, called “shredding.” But shredding doesn’t really destroy anything. It just supposedly renders whatever was on the paper illegible by cutting it up, usually into thin strips. That this is not necessarily a foolproof method was demonstrated in 1979, when the American embassy in Teheran was occupied by Iranian militants, who found sensitive documents which the Americans had had time to shred. But the shredded strips in those days were not so thin that they could not be patiently re-assembled, and the results were eventually published – to the further embarrassment of the United States.

No doubt, shredders since then have become much more sophisticated. But we must remember that attempts to conceal, erase, or encode data have a long history, as do equally persistent attempts to detect, decode, and reveal. Saying the right thing the right way is of course what “passwords” are all about. The very problem of how to tell friend from enemy goes back at least as far as the days of the Old Testament. In the Book of Judges (Chapter 12), we learn how two warring tribes, who spoke the same language but different dialects, distinguished each other by their different pronunciation of the same word. That word was “shibboleth” (meaning something like an ear of corn). In modern usage the same word has come to mean any identifiable feature setting one group apart from another.

Another method of concealing data (if you had the power and the time) is told by ancient Greek historian Herodotus, according to whom a certain ruler named Histiaos sent a secret message tattooed upon the shaved head of a trusted slave, who had to wait until enough hair had grown back to cover it up. He was then sent with instructions to tell the recipient to shave his head, so that the message might be read.

If that sounds hard to swallow, remember that another way of concealing data written on paper was to eat it, and let one’s digestive juices do the rest. Alternatively, if the message was written in pencil, you could of course try to erase it. Various means were used for this purpose (including, believe it or not, breadcrumbs) – but not until vulcanized rubber made its appearance in 1839 (thanks to the efforts of Charles Goodyear) did rubber erasers become commonplace. It’s worth noting that the very word “rubber” was derived originally from the use of this substance to rub things out.

Hiding evidence became much more of a challenge with the development, around the end of the nineteenth century, of modern fingerprinting. This technique took to a new level the concept that every individual is unique, and, with what we might call forensic irony, revealed that the evildoer, had in many cases, always been leaving his own signature on his work. That, of course, now seems like primitive technology when we have such comparatively unfathomable wonders as identification by DNA.

But if you may want to retrieve what you currently wish to hide, there is, of course, good old burial. Theoretically, there is no better hiding place than Mother Earth. Stories of “buried treasure” are legion, and have given rise to a host of “metal detectors.” It is a tragic fact, however, that one of the earliest such devices worked, in a sense, too well. It was developed by Alexander Graham Bell (who had already invented the Telephone,) and was used, in 1881, in an effort to locate the bullet which was lodged in the chest of President James Garfield as the result of an (ultimately successful) assassination attempt. The device worked correctly, but unfortunately, it failed to find the bullet, because it was confused by the metal coil springs in the bed on which the president was laying.

Ultimately, all matters of evidence come down to a principle known as the “burden of proof.” In America, any accused party is presumed innocent, so the Prosecution has to produce evidence to prove otherwise. If they can’t, the accused must go free, no matter how guilty he or she may actually be. Is there any proof that this justifies the destruction of incriminating evidence? – Not a shred.


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