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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.
The main sculpture is located in the northwest corner of the New Headquarters Building courtyard, outside of the Agency cafeteria. The sculpture comprises four large copper plates with other elements made of red and green granite, white quartz, and petrified wood.
The name Kryptos comes from the Greek word for "hidden", and the theme of the sculpture is "intelligence gathering." The most prominent feature is a large vertical S-shaped copper screen resembling a scroll, or piece of paper emerging from a computer printer, covered with characters constituting encrypted text. The characters consist of the 26 letters of the standard Latin alphabet and question marks cut out of the copper. The main sculpture contains four separate enigmatic messages, three of which have been solved.
At the same time as the main sculpture was installed, sculptor Jim Sanborn also placed several other pieces around CIA grounds, such as several large granite slabs with sandwiched copper sheets outside the entrance to the New Headquarters Building. Several morse code messages are engraved in the copper, and one of the slabs has an engraved compass rose and a lodestone. Other elements of Sanborn's installation include a landscaped area, a duck pond, a reflecting pool, and several other seemingly unmarked slabs.
The cost of the sculpture was $250,000.
The ciphertext on one half of the main sculpture contains 869 characters in total—865 letters and 4 question marks. In April 2006, however, Sanborn released information stating that a letter was omitted on the main half of Kryptos "for aesthetic reasons, to keep the sculpture visually balanced." There are also a few incorrect letters in the ciphertext which Sanborn has said were intentional, and a few letters near the beginning of the bottom half have have been displaced from their normal positions, apparently intentionally. The other half of the sculpture comprises a keyed Vigenère encryption tableau, consisting of 867 letters. One of the lines of the tableau is one character too long, which Sanford has indicated was accidental.
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. Sanborn also confirmed that should he die before the entire sculpture becomes deciphered, there will be someone able to confirm the solution.
The first person to publicly announce solving the first three sections, in 1999, was Jim Gillogly, a computer scientist from southern California. After Gillogly's announcement, the CIA revealed that their analyst David Stein had also solved the same sections in 1998, using pencil and paper techniques, though at the time of his solution the information was only disseminated within the intelligence community, and no public announcement was made. The NSA also claimed at that time that they had solvers, but would not reveal names or dates until 2000, when it was learned that an NSA team led by Ken Miller, along with Dennis McDaniels and two other unnamed individuals, had solved parts 1–3 in late 1992. All of these early attempts to solve Kryptos found that K2 ended with WESTIDBYROWS, but in 2006, Sanborn announced that he had made an error in part 2, which changed the last part of the plaintext from WESTIDBYROWS to WESTXLAYERTWO.
The following are the solutions of parts 1–3 of the sculpture. Misspellings present in the code are included as-is. Kryptos K1 and K2 ciphers are polyalphabetic substitution, using a Vigenère tableau similar to the tableau on the other half of the sculpture. K3 is a transposition cipher, and K4 is still unsolved.
Keywords: Kryptos, Palimpsest
Keywords: Kryptos, Abscissa
On April 19, 2006, Sanborn contacted the Kryptos Group (an online community dedicated to the Kryptos puzzle) to inform them that the accepted solution to part 2 was wrong. He said that he made an error in the sculpture by omitting an "X" used to indicate a break for aesthetic reasons, and that the decrypted text which ended "...FOUR SECONDS WEST ID BY ROWS" should actually be "...FOUR SECONDS WEST X LAYER TWO".
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."
When commenting in 2006 about his error in section 2, Sanborn said that the answers to the first sections contain clues to the last section. In November 2010, Sanborn released another clue: Letters 64-69 NYPVTT in part 4 encode the text BERLIN.
Kryptos is the first cryptographic sculpture made by Sanborn. After Kryptos, however, he went on to make several other sculptures with codes and other types of writing, including one called Antipodes which is at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., an "Untitled Kryptos Piece" which was sold to a private collector, and a Cyrillic Projector with encrypted Russian Cyrillic text, which included an extract from a classified KGB document. The cipher on one side of Antipodes repeats the text from CIA's Kryptos. Much of the cipher on its Russian side is duplicated on the Cyrillic Projector. The Russian portion of the cipher on the Cyrillic Projector and Antipodes was solved in 2003 after Elonka Dunin "led the charge", with the ciphertext independently decrypted by Frank Corr and Mike Bales, and plaintext translation from Russian provided by Dunin.
The dust jacket of the US version of Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code contains two references to Kryptos: One on the back cover (coordinates printed light red on dark red, vertically next to the blurbs) is a reference to the coordinates mentioned in the plaintext of part 2 (see above), except the degrees digit is off by one. When Brown and his publisher were asked about this, they both gave the same reply: "The discrepancy is intentional." The other reference is hidden in the brown "tear" artwork—upside-down words which say "Only WW knows" which is another reference to Kryptos Part 2.
A small version of Kryptos appears in the season 5 episode of Alias, "S.O.S.". In it, Marshall Flinkman, in a small moment of comic relief, says he has cracked the code just by looking at it during a tour visit to the CIA office. The solution he describes sounds like the solution to the first two parts.
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