February 29, 2024

Can You Crack the Uncrackable Code in Kryptos, the CIA’s Work of Public Art?


It can be chal­leng­ing to parse the mean­ing of many non-nar­ra­tive art­works.

Some­times the title will offer a clue, or the artist will shed some light in an inter­view.

Is it a com­ment on the cul­tur­al, socio-eco­nom­ic or polit­i­cal con­text in which it was cre­at­ed?

Or is the act of cre­at­ing it the artist’s most salient point?

Are mul­ti­ple inter­pre­ta­tions pos­si­ble?

Artist Jim San­born’s mas­sive sculp­ture Kryp­tos may inspire var­i­ous reac­tions in its view­ers, but there’s def­i­nite­ly a sin­gle cor­rect inter­pre­ta­tion.

But 78-year-old San­born isn’t say­ing what…

He wants some­one else to iden­ti­fy it.

Kryp­tos’ main mys­tery — more like “a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enig­ma” to quote Win­ston Churchill — was hand cut into an S‑shaped cop­per screen using jig­saws.

Image cour­tesy of the CIA

Pro­fes­sion­al crypt­an­a­lysts, hob­by­ists, and stu­dents have been attempt­ing to crack the code of its 865 let­ters and 4 ques­tion marks since 1990, when it was installed on the grounds of CIA head­quar­ters in Lan­g­ley, Vir­ginia.

The hands-on part fell well with­in Sanborn’s purview. But a Mas­ters in sculp­ture from Pratt Insti­tute does not auto­mat­i­cal­ly con­fer cryp­tog­ra­phy bonafides, so San­born enlist­ed Edward Schei­dt, the retired chair­man of the CIA’s Cryp­to­graph­ic Cen­ter, for a crash course in late 20th-cen­tu­ry cod­ing sys­tems.

San­born sam­pled var­i­ous cod­ing meth­ods for the fin­ished piece, want­i­ng the act of deci­pher­ing to feel like “peel­ing lay­ers off an onion.”

That onion has been par­tial­ly peeled for years.

Deci­pher­ing three of its four pan­els is a pelt shared by com­put­er sci­en­tist and for­mer pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Cryp­togram Asso­ci­a­tion, James Gillo­gly, and CIA ana­lyst David Stein.

Gillo­gly arrived at his solu­tion in 1999, using a Pen­tium II.

Stein reached the same con­clu­sion a year ear­li­er, after chip­ping away at it for some 400 hours with pen­cil and paper, though the CIA kept his achieve­ment on the down low until Gillo­gly went pub­lic with his.

The fol­low­ing year the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency claimed that four of their employ­ees, work­ing col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly, had reached an iden­ti­cal solu­tion in 1992, a fact cor­rob­o­rat­ed by doc­u­ments obtained through the Free­dom of Infor­ma­tion Act.

(On a relat­ed note, I got Wor­dle in three this morn­ing…)

This still leaves the 97-char­ac­ter phrase from the final pan­el up for grabs. Crack­ing it will be the penul­ti­mate step in solv­ing Kryp­tos’ puz­zle. As San­born told NPR in 2020, “that phrase is in itself a rid­dle:”

It’s mys­te­ri­ous. It’s going to lead to some­thing else. It’s not going to be fin­ished when it’s decod­ed.

The pub­lic is wel­come to con­tin­ue mak­ing edu­cat­ed guess­es.

San­born has leaked three clues over the years, all words that can be found in the final pas­sage of decrypt­ed text.

BERLIN, at posi­tions 64 — 69 (2010)

CLOCK, at posi­tions 70 — 74 (2014)

NORTHEAST, at posi­tion 26 — 34

Have you solved it, yet?

No?

Don’t feel bad…

San­born has been field­ing incor­rect answers dai­ly for decades, though a ris­ing tide of aggres­sive and racist mes­sages led him to charge 50 bucks per sub­mis­sion, to which he responds via e‑mail, with absolute­ly no hope of hints.

Kryp­tos’ most ded­i­cat­ed fans, like game devel­op­er /cryptologist Elon­ka Dunin, seen ply­ing San­born with copi­ous quan­ti­ties of sushi above in Great Big Sto­ry’s video, find val­ue in work­ing togeth­er and, some­times, in per­son.

Their dream is that San­born might inad­ver­tent­ly let slip a valu­able tid­bit in their pres­ence, though that seems like a long shot.

The artist claims to have got­ten very skilled at main­tain­ing a pok­er face.

(Wait, does that sug­gest his inter­locu­tors have been get­ting warmer?)

Dunin has relin­quished all fan­tasies of solv­ing Kryp­tos solo, and now works to help some­one — any­one — solve it.

(Please, Lord, don’t let it be chat­G­PT…)

San­ford has put a con­tin­gency plan in place in case no one ever man­ages to get to the bot­tom of the Kryp­tos (ancient Greek for “hid­den”) conun­drum.

He, or rep­re­sen­ta­tives of his estate, will auc­tion off the solu­tion. He is con­tent with let­ting the win­ning bid­der decide whether or not to share what’s been revealed to them.

“I do real­ize that the val­ue of Kryp­tos is unknown and that per­haps this con­cept will bear lit­tle fruit,” he told the New York Times, though if one takes the mass­es of peo­ple des­per­ate to learn the solu­tion and fac­tors in Sanford’s inten­tion to donate all pro­ceeds to cli­mate research, it may well bear quite a healthy amount of fruit.

Join Elon­ka Dunin’s online com­mu­ni­ty of Kryp­tos enthu­si­asts here.

To give you a taste of what you’re in for, here are the first two pan­els, fol­lowed by their solu­tions, with the artist’s inten­tion­al mis­spellings intact.


1.
Encrypt­ed Text
EMUFPHZLRFAXYUSDJKZLDKRNSHGNFIVJ
YQTQUXQBQVYUVLLTREVJYQTMKYRDMFD

Decrypt­ed Text
Between sub­tle shad­ing and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlu­sion.

2.

Encrypt­ed Text
VFPJUDEEHZWETZYVGWHKKQETGFQJNCE
GGWHKK?DQMCPFQZDQMMIAGPFXHQRLG
TIMVMZJANQLVKQEDAGDVFRPJUNGEUNA
QZGZLECGYUXUEENJTBJLBQCRTBJDFHRR
YIZETKZEMVDUFKSJHKFWHKUWQLSZFTI
HHDDDUVH?DWKBFUFPWNTDFIYCUQZERE
EVLDKFEZMOQQJLTTUGSYQPFEUNLAVIDX
FLGGTEZ?FKZBSFDQVGOGIPUFXHHDRKF
FHQNTGPUAECNUVPDJMQCLQUMUNEDFQ
ELZZVRRGKFFVOEEXBDMVPNFQXEZLGRE
DNQFMPNZGLFLPMRJQYALMGNUVPDXVKP
DQUMEBEDMHDAFMJGZNUPLGEWJLLAETG

Decrypt­ed Text
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 ID by rows

View step by step solu­tions for the first three of Kryp­tos’ encrypt­ed pan­els here.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The Enig­ma Machine: How Alan Tur­ing Helped Break the Unbreak­able Nazi Code

Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence May Have Cracked the Code of the Voyn­ich Man­u­script: Has Mod­ern Tech­nol­o­gy Final­ly Solved a Medieval Mys­tery?

The Code of Charles Dick­ens’ Short­hand Has Been Cracked by Com­put­er Pro­gram­mers, Solv­ing a 160-Year-Old Mys­tery

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.





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