Kryptos is an encrypted sculpture by American artist Jim Sanborn located on the grounds of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia. Since its dedication on November 3, 1990, there has been much speculation about the meaning of the encrypted messages it bears. Of the four messages, three have been solved, with the fourth remaining one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world. The sculpture continues to provide a diversion for cryptanalysts, both amateur and professional, who are attempting to decrypt the final section.
Sanborn worked with a retiring CIA employee named Ed Scheidt, Chairman of the CIA Cryptographic Center, to come up with the cryptographic systems used on the sculpture. Sanborn has revealed that the sculpture contains a riddle within a riddle, which will be solvable only after the four encrypted passages have been decrypted. He has given conflicting information about the sculpture’s answer, saying at one time that he gave the complete solution to then-CIA director William H. Webster during the dedication ceremony; but later, he also said that he had not given Webster the entire solution. He did, however, confirm that where in part two it says “Who knows the exact location? Only WW,” “WW” was intended to refer to William Webster.
The following are the solutions of parts 1–3 of the sculpture. K4 is still unsolved:
Solution of Passage 1
Keywords: Kryptos, Palimpsest
BETWEEN SUBTLE SHADING AND THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT LIES THE NUANCE OF IQLUSION
Solution of Passage 2
Keywords: Kryptos, Abscissa
IT WAS TOTALLY INVISIBLE HOWS THAT POSSIBLE ? THEY USED THE EARTHS MAGNETIC FIELD X THE INFORMATION WAS GATHERED AND TRANSMITTED UNDERGRUUND TO AN UNKNOWN LOCATION X DOES LANGLEY KNOW ABOUT THIS ? THEY SHOULD ITS BURIED OUT THERE SOMEWHERE X WHO KNOWS THE EXACT LOCATION ? ONLY WW THIS WAS HIS LAST MESSAGE X THIRTY EIGHT DEGREES FIFTY SEVEN MINUTES SIX POINT FIVE SECONDS NORTH SEVENTY SEVEN DEGREES EIGHT MINUTES FORTY FOUR SECONDS WEST X LAYER TWO
The coordinates mentioned in the plaintext:. The point is about 150 feet southeast of the sculpture itself.
Solution of Passage 3
SLOWLY DESPARATLY SLOWLY THE REMAINS OF PASSAGE DEBRIS THAT ENCUMBERED THE LOWER PART OF THE DOORWAY WAS REMOVED WITH TREMBLING HANDS I MADE A TINY BREACH IN THE UPPER LEFT HAND CORNER AND THEN WIDENING THE HOLE A LITTLE I INSERTED THE CANDLE AND PEERED IN THE HOT AIR ESCAPING FROM THE CHAMBER CAUSED THE FLAME TO FLICKER BUT PRESENTLY DETAILS OF THE ROOM WITHIN EMERGED FROM THE MIST X CAN YOU SEE ANYTHING Q ?
This is a paraphrased quotation from Howard Carter‘s account of the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun on November 26, 1922, as described in his 1923 book The Tomb of Tutankhamun. The question with which it ends is that posed by Lord Carnarvon, to which Carter (in the book) famously replied “wonderful things”. In the actual November 26, 1922 field notes, his reply was, “Yes, it is wonderful.”
Solution of Passage 4 Remains Unsolved
In 2006 Sanborn said that the answers to the first sections contain clues to the last section. In 2010, Sanborn released another clue: Letters 64-69 NYPVTT in part 4 encode the text BERLIN.
In 1998, CIA analyst David Stein cracked three of the sculpture’s four coded messages after spending 400 hours diddling over the problem with paper and pencil during many lunch breaks. Only his CIA colleagues knew about his achievement at the time, however, because he wasn’t allowed to go public with the news.
In 1999, Stein wrote a fascinating account of how he cracked the messages. The suspenseful 11-page tale, which appeared in the CIA’s classified journal Studies in Intelligence, is one of perseverance and pluck, not unlike the epic story of Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick (Stein himself references the literary tale in his entertaining piece).
The secrecy over Stein’s achievement allowed California computer scientist and cryptographer Jim Gillogly to steal the spotlight in 1999 before the release of Stein’s CIA article, when he announced that he’d also cracked the same three messages, only he used a Pentium II to do it.
The popular story of Kryptos had long held that CIA analyst David Stein was the first to crack three of the cryptographic sculpture’s four puzzles in 1998.
But documents released by the National Security Agency last year show how the spy agency beat Stein and Gillogly to the punch years earlier.
It’s a story that largely remained buried in the NSA archives until Elonka Dunin unearthed it in a FOIA request in 2013. Dunin is the premier expert on Kryptos who maintains a website dedicated to cracking the sculpture’s code.
The sculpture remained unsolved until 1992, when Adm. William O. Studeman, the CIA’s then-deputy director and a former NSA director, issued a formal challenge to his former colleagues at the NSA to solve the CIA’s new courtyard puzzle. The NSA’s director at the time, Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, announced the challenge during an internal ceremony at the NSA, and a small cadre of cryptanalysts from the agency’s Z Group — the internal name for the cryptanalysts division — “enthusiastically responded.”
“Within two days of receiving the information tasking from Chief, Z,” they had solved parts one through three of the puzzle. They spent another day on the fourth section, but very quickly “a decision was made to stop any further work” on it. “Given the suspected cryptography, the last section is too short to solve without diverting a great deal of effort from operational problems,” they wrote in the memo.
In the end, it was just three analysts who solved the codes, one tackling each section of the puzzle. Although the names are redacted in the documents released by the NSA, Dennis McDaniels was identified as one of the crackers in the Baltimore Sun article. Ken Miller was also identified as another member of the group, though someone knowledgeable about the project told Wired that he didn’t decipher any of the sections but worked closely with the group to write up their notes.
In June 1993, after the three parts were cracked, an internal letter announcing the feat was sent to Admiral McConnell at the NSA, marked “For Official Use Only” and informing him that the deed was done. It was returned with a request to forward the note to Admiral Studeman at the CIA, no doubt with an air of glee and arrogance that the NSA had beat the CIA at cracking its own puzzle. Another scribbled note on the memo read, “Great Story!”
The documents describe their efforts through “many wrong turns” to arrive at the solutions.
Another FOIA request by Michael Ravnitzky processed in April 2014 provided two additional documents related to the NSA’s 1992 efforts to solve Kryptos, along with information about the four clues left by Sanborn, the puzzle’ designer: 1) the Kryptos sculpture itself containing the cipher and code text (pictured above) 2) a magnetic loadstone that makes a compass point South 3) a 106 character Morse code message (deciphered in the document below) 4) and two benches near the lily pond; and a map 0f the Kryptos area marking each object.
In September 2014, after a Black Vault FOIA request nearly 3 years in the making, the NSA released 2 new declassified documents on Kryptos, summarizing the agency’s previous work and new revelations working toward its complete solution, including more on attempts to decipher the still unencrypted fourth message.