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Downed U.S. Spy Plane May Have Used Shredders, `Disk-Mashers'

If the crew of the US Navy spy plane held by China managed to destroy any on-board secrets, it may have been with the help of a Westborough, Mass. shredding company.

The company is Security Engineered Machinery, or SEM, which makes high-powered paper choppers and computer disk mashers for US military and intelligence agencies. The Navy won't specify what equipment was on board the EP-3E surveillance plane, but company executives have reason to believe it was theirs.

SEM says the naval air station that was home base for the plane's squadron, on Whidbey Island in Washington state, has been a major customer for its products. These include a ``degausser'' wand that uses a strong magnetic field to wipe clean any disk brought within several inches of it, and a shredder that chops paper into bits no bigger than 1/3 of an inch. That would be too small for any outsider to reconstruct.

``More than likely they're on that aircraft,'' said Leonard Rosen, chairman and founder of closely held SEM. ``We know for sure they're using our equipment somewhere,'' he said, of the plane's squadron.

Rosen and other SEM officials have no direct knowledge of what actions the EP-3E crew may have taken to destroy sensitive data after their aircraft collided with a Chinese F-8 jet fighter and was forced to make an emergency landing at a Chinese air base on Hainan Island. The accident mushroomed into an international crisis over the past week, with the Bush administration demanding the return of the 24 crew members and the plane, and the Chinese government demanding an apology.

In the shadowy world of data-destruction, SEM has assembled quite a following. Founded in 1967 to make high-powered paper shredders, it has evolved with the technology revolution and lately has begun selling various equipment for rendering useless computerized data as well. The company now has about 35 employees and expects revenue of around $10 million this year.

For most if its history, it has supplied devices to dispose of sensitive military and diplomatic documents and other material. Some models use stainless-steel blades attached to high-speed rotors; one version needs just an hour to chew through 450 pounds of books or videotapes.

That capability - and various military approvals - also drew SEM into contact with civilian agencies, and several years ago Rosen and president Peter Dempsey began making plans for a major expansion into the commercial markets as well. Software-makers, for instance, often destroy old inventories of computer disks, to prevent their entering the black market. SEM's equipment has also been used by the Federal Reserve system to destroy old banknotes.

But Dempsey said military sales have remained the company's primary line of business. In the mid-1990s, it developed a ``declassifier'' that sanded off the surface material from CD-ROMs and left only a powder.

The technique met a military security standard, but customers wanted a more versatile machine that could be used to render all sorts of optical disks useless as well.

Now SEM is about to start shipping its answer: the Model 1250/B. Internally it resembles a waffle iron and uses metal dies to indent marks onto the disk's surface. SEM says the new pits will throw off any laser trying to read information.

Another advantage over the previous method, Dempsey said, is that labels don't need to be peeled off. The new machines will sell for about $3,500, or $1,700 less than the previous models. Dempsey figures to sell 500 of the new version this year, or roughly as many as SEM has sold of the previous model to date.

Dempsey said his company's equipment has also become popular with defense contractors who use it to destroy drafts of sensitive proposals.

``You can't get contracts without shredders these days,'' he said.

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(The Boston Globe's Web site is at http://www.boston.com/globe.)

c.2001 The Boston Globe


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