Kryptos is a sculpture by American artist James Sanborn located on the grounds of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia, in the United States. Since its dedication on November 3, 1990, there has been much speculation about the meaning of the encrypted messages it bears. It continues to provide a diversion for employees of the CIA and other cryptanalysts attempting to decrypt the messages.
The main sculpture is made of red granite, red and green slate, white quartz, petrified wood, lodestone and copper, and is located in the northwest corner of the New Headquarters Building courtyard, outside of the Agency cafeteria.
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 comprising encrypted text. The characters consist of the 26 letters of the standard alphabet and question marks cut out of the copper. This "inscription" contains four separate enigmatic messages, each apparently encrypted with a different cipher.
At the same time as the main sculpture was installed, sculptor 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. Other elements of Sanborn's installation include a landscaped area, a duck pond, 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, however Sanborn released information in April 2006 stating that an intended letter on the main half of Kryptos was missing. This would bring the total number of characters to 870 on the main portion. The other half of the sculpture comprises a Vigenère
encryption tableau, comprised of 869 characters, if spaces are counted. 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 since revealed that the sculpture contains a riddle within a riddle which will be solvable only after the four encrypted passages have been decrypted. He said that he gave the complete solution at the time of the sculpture's dedication to CIA director William H. Webster
. However, in an interview for wired.com in January 2005, Sanborn said that he had not given Webster the entire solution. He did, however, confirm that where in part 2 it says "Who knows the exact location? Only WW," that "WW" was intended to refer to William Webster.
The first person to publicly announce solving the first three sections, in 1999, was James Gillogly
, a computer scientist
from southern California
, who deciphered 760 of the characters (772 less 3 question marks and XLAYERTWO). The portion that he couldn't solve, the remaining 97 or 98 characters, is the same part which has stumped the government's own cryptanalysts. 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 2005, 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 using a computer in late 1992, but that they too had been stumped by the fourth section.
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 had removed a single character from the ciphertext for aesthetic reasons. An accidental result of this change was that plaintext that should have decoded as "XLAYERTWO" had been decoded as "IDBYROWS".
The impact of this change on attempts to solve part 4 is not currently known. Sanborn has implied that there may be a connection, as solvers "were in fact, missing a clue".
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
text, which included an extract from a classified KGB
document. The cipher on one side of Antipodes
repeats the text from CIA's Kryptos
. The cipher on its Russian side is duplicated on the Cyrillic Projector
. The Russian portion of the cipher on the Cyrillic Projector
was solved in 2003 via an international effort organized by Elonka Dunin
, with the cryptographic component independently cracked by Frank Corr and Mike Bales.
Pop culture references
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 below), 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." These are another reference to Kryptos Part 2.
A small version of the 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 Central Intelligence Agency office. The solution he describes sounds like the solution to the first two parts.
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 Vigenere Tableau
similar to the tableau on the other half of the sculpture. K3 is a transposition cipher
, and K4 is yet unsolved.
Keywords: Kryptos, Palimpsest
- BETWEEN SUBTLE SHADING AND THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT LIES THE NUANCE OF IQLUSION
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
In April 2006 Sanborn 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 ROW S" should actually be "...FOUR SECONDS WEST X LAYER TWO".
Note: The coordinates mentioned in the plaintext: ; on Google Maps; analysis of the cited location The point is about 200 feet south of the sculpture itself.
- 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 and misspelled quotation from Howard Carter's account of the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun 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.
Part 4 remains publicly unsolved, though there is an active Yahoo! Group
(formed in 2003) which continues to coordinate actions of 1000+ members towards final resolution.
- Jonathan Binstock and Jim Sanborn, Atomic Time: Pure Science and Seduction, 2003. ISBN 0-88675-072-5 (contains 1-2 pages about Kryptos)
- Elonka Dunin, The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms, 2006. ISBN 0-7867-1726-2
- CIA website on Kryptos
- "CIA's Artistic Enigma Reveals All but Final Clues", June 16, 1999, New York Times
- "Cracking the Code of a CIA Sculpture", July 19, 1999, Washington Post
- "Gillogly Cracks CIA Art", & "The Kryptos Code Unmasked", 1999, New York Times and Cypherpunks archive
- "Unlocking the secret of Kryptos", March 17, 2000, Sun Journal
- "Solving the Enigma of Kryptos", January 26, 2005, Wired, by Kim Zetter
- "CIA sculpture 'kryptos' draws mystery lovers", May 27, 2005, Wall Street Journal
- "Interest grows in solving cryptic CIA puzzle after link to Da Vinci Code", June 11, 2005, The Guardian
- "Cracking the Code", June 19, 2005, CNN
- "Typo Confounds Kryptos Sleuths", April 20, 2006 Wired, by Kim Zetter
Aerial photos of Kryptos location