Kryptos is a sculpture outside of the CIA headquarters in Virginia, America. It consists of four copper panels each of which is covered in code. Letters which spell out nonsense, until you figure out the encryption. Each of the four panels is encrypted in a different way. Since its installation in 1990 three of the four panels have been decoded. Part remains unsolved after these 20 years despite the efforts put in by the employees of the CIA and thousands of cryptanalysts. This fourth and final panel of Kryptos is now one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world.
The sculpture was a $250,000 piece by Jim Sanborn. Around the CIA site he placed many other, smaller but similar copper panels with messages in morse code engraved in their surfaces; for Kryptos another level was required. A message was created, split into four panels then each encoded with the help of the chief of the CIA Cryptographic Center. Each panel using a more complex combination of complex ciphers.
The fourth panel has remained elusive for a reason. It is greatly more complex than the others, to solve it, you both need to find the keys for it, what ciphers were used, and you also need to use the answers from the previous three panels as well. Without the first three answers perfect, the fourth remains impossible.
That is not the full extent, there is a second layer of complexity in it all; if the fourth panel is deciphered then the transcript produces a riddle within the riddle. That riddle is the last step, solve that and the answer is yours. Progress is going slowly towards that goal, the first three panels were solved by three parties before 2000, a CIA employee using pen and paper techniques in his lunch breaks, a Californian computer scientist and a group from the National Security Agency.
Whilst those three have a considerable amount, only the artist has the full puzzle. One exception is William Webster the then-CIA director and Ed Scheidt the person who designed the ciphers, they were both informed of the full deciphered text, but not the final solution to the riddle. That final clue eludes him to this day. It in fact eludes everyone and may do so for a very long time,so in the case that the panel is solved after his death, James Sanborn has ensured that the final solution will be passed on to one person, who can confirm or deny any claims.
The first panel is a short passage with a deliberate spelling error, the second panel speaks of something invisible and then some very precise coordinates pointing to a spot 200m south of Kryptos. It also mentions that something is buried, this has not been confirmed as no digs have been carried out. Then panel three has a misspelled and paraphrased account of the famous opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter.
As of now Kryptos has recently resurged in the public conscience, part of it appeared on the sleeve jacket of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code as text on the front, and a list of some of the deciphered coordinates appear on the back. Panel 4, and Kryptos is itself more than the sum of its parts, it is more than the bandied around code.
Since 2003 a group of 2000 individuals, several CIA employees and lone enthusiasts have worked tirelessly at it with little headway made. The only clue came from the sculptor in November 2010, the 20 year anniversary of the sculpture. The clue was that letters 64-69, NYPVTT, encode the text BERLIN. It is not much, but a relative breakthrough for the groups, a start. A beginning of Kryptos’ end perhaps.
The greater meaning in Kryptos is philosophical, no-one was ever asked to solve it yet thousands are doing so, the challenge is a call to action, engaging thousands, binding them together in pursuit of a goal. The goal is not the answer itself though, the goal is to find it, regardless of whether the answer is the meaning of life, or 42. A healthy dose of curiosity doesn’t go amiss either but the goal is closer to philosophical, and so too may be the answer.
Based on interviews with those associated with James Sanborn it has been deduced that the answer may be philosophical, some deep message he wishes to convey. It is easy to imagine the answer 42 being the end result but this is unlikely, it may speak of humanities endeavours to simplify complexity, its capabilities or a greater universal truth. The answer is for the people, not the deciphering machines. The answer will be open-ended, who knows, it may even be another question, those working at Kryptos would perhaps love nothing more. We shall find out eventually though, whether in 5, 20 or 40 years; the answer, or question shall be found.
Thanks to Richard for bringing this sculpture to my attention.
- Kryptos Article on Wikipedia
- Interview with Ed Scheidt by Wired.com
- Interview with James Sanborn on PBS.org
- Kryptos website maintained by Elonka Dunin