The Kryptos Cipher

images-3The famous artist Pablo Picasso once said, “ Sculpture is the art of the intelligence.”  These words have taken shape in winding curves and patterns spawned by artistic imagination ever since.     Picasso’s  words have even found a home at the C.I.A. headquarters.  Since 1990, the sculpture Kryptos, created by American Artist Jim Sanborn, has been a permanent courtyard fixture at the agency.

What makes this copper structure unique, besides its artistic wave-like shape, is that there are four sections of  specifically placed alphabetic characters that form an encrypted code.  Cryptanalysts, professional and amateur alike, have tried to decode the sections since the structure was created.  In fact, they have had some success.   The first three sections were solved before the new millennium.   The fourth section, on the other hand, is the Achilles’ heel of  many code breakers and still very much unsolved.

Solutions to sections 1-3 (Ciphertext and Plaintext) and the unsolved section 4 are as follows:

Sec. 1: Keywords: Kryptos, Palimpsest

Ciphertext:

EMUFPHZLRFAXYUSDJKZLDKRNSHGNFIVJ
YQTQUXQBQVYUVLLTREVJYQTMKYRDMFD

Plaintext:

BETWEEN SUBTLE SHADING AND THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT LIES THE NUANCE OF IQLUSION

Sec. 2: Keywords: Kryptos, Abscissa

Ciphertext:

VFPJUDEEHZWETZYVGWHKKQETGFQJNCE
GGWHKK?DQMCPFQZDQMMIAGPFXHQRLG
TIMVMZJANQLVKQEDAGDVFRPJUNGEUNA
QZGZLECGGYUXUEENJTBJLBQCRTBJDFHRR
YIZETKZEMVDUFKSJHKFWHKUWQLSZFTI
HHDDDUVH?DWKBFUFPWNTDFIYCUQZERE
EVLDKFEZMOQQJLTTUGSYQPFEUNLAVIDX
FLGGTEZ?FKZBSFDQVGOGIPUFXHHDRKF
FHQNTGPUAECNUVPDJMQCLQUMUNEDFQ
ELZZVRRGKFFVOEEXBDMVPNFQXEZLGRE
DNQFMPNZGLFLPMRJQYALMGNUVPDXVKP
DQUMEBEDMHDAFMJGZNUPLGEWJLLAETG

Plaintext:

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

 

Sec. 3: Keywords: Kryptos (0362514)

Ciphertext:

ENDYAHROHNLSRHEOCPTEOIBIDYSHNAIA
CHTNREYULDSLLSLLNOHSNOSMRWXMNE
TPRNGATHINRARPESLNNELEBLPIIACAE
WMTWNDITEENRAHCTENEUDRETNHAEOE
TFOLSEDTIWENHAEIOYTEYQHEENCTAYCR
EIFBRSPAMHHEWENATAMATEGYEERLB
TEEFOASFIOTUETUAEOTOARMAEERTNRTI
BSEDDNIAAHTTMSTEWPIEROAGRIEWFEB
AECTDDHILCEIHSITEGOEAOSDDRYDLORIT
RKLMLEHAGTDHARDPNEOHMGFMFEUHE
ECDMRIPFEIMEHNLSSTTRTVDOHW?

 

Plaintext:

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 ?

 

Sec. 4: Keywords: (Unknown by General Public)

Ciphertext:

OBKRUOXOGHULBSOLIFBBWFLRVQQPRNGKSSO
TWTQSJQSSEKZZWATJKLUDIAWINFBNYP
VTTMZFPKWGDKZXTJCDIGKUHUAUEKCAR

 

Some of the misspelled words in the solutions were purposely put there by Sanborn for confusion .   Technical detailed solutions are given by the University of California, San Diego, here.  In the UC San Diego solutions the end of the solution to section 2 reads “ID BY ROWS” which was corrected by cryptanalysts in 2006 to read correctly “X LAYER TWO”  and later confirmed by Sanborn.   The solution to section 3 is a passage out of the book The Tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter.    Sanborn admits that this was a book that influenced him from an early age.

In a 2010 New York Times article by John Schwartz entitled “Clues to Stubborn Secret in C.I.A.’s Backyard”, Sandborn gives a clue to section 4 by revealing that the characters 64-69, NYPVTT, stand for BERLIN.  For now Sandborn, former C.I.A. chief, William Webster, and retired C.I.A. cryptanalyst Ed Scheidt (consultant to Sanborn on the project),  are the only people who know the encrypted message behind section 4.   A search will give you a submission website set up by Sanborn, found here: submit , were anyone can submit the first 10 characters of their findings.   Maybe you will submit the solution.  What do you think it could be?

About Avery Carr

Avery Carr is a senior analyst and past senior editor for the American Mathematical Society Grad Blog. He and his wife, Alison, live in Olive Branch, MS.
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