An Artist Created An Encrypted Sculpture So Complicated That The CIA Can't Even Crack It

The Greek word for hidden is kryptos, and it appropriately serves as the name of an enigmatic sculpture at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. What makes this particular statue fascinating is that it holds four passages filled with encrypted messages. Of these four, three were solved quickly, but the fourth and final one remains a mystery.

While there are a number of brain-wracking unsolved encrypted messages out there, Kryptos stands among the top. It contains secret messages even the CIA can’t solve - and it sits right outside of their HQ. So what is the Kryptos sculpture exactly? Washington D.C., artist Jim Sanborn created it back in the late '80s as part of a competition the CIA held. Since the sculpture’s unveiling, various cryptographers - professional and amateur alike - have independently solved the first three passages. But everyone is stumped by the last passage, which Sanborn says holds the key to solving the sculpture’s true hidden meaning.

Jim Sanborn’s Kryptos sculpture continues to baffle even the smartest minds in the world. Do you think you could solve it? 

  • Kryptos Was The Winning Entry In A CIA-Funded Competition

    Kryptos Was The Winning Entry In A CIA-Funded Competition
    Photo: Jim Sanborn / Wikimedia Commons

    In the late '80s, the CIA was building the New Headquarters Building (NHB) and wanted to add an art installation to enhance it. They held a competition to see who could provide the best design according to their criteria, and in 1988 chose Sanborn’s Kryptos. The CIA commissioned him to erect the sculpture and awarded him $250,000 to craft it. It was revealed in 1990, a year before the NHB officially opened its doors. 

    Kryptos is actually a two-part sculpture, with the first part being the most enigmatic. It contains four large copper plates with the cryptographic messages etched out of them. The sculpture is also comprised of various natural elements: water, wood, granite, and quartz. The other part to the sculpture maintains similar natural element aesthetics, and the copper plates that accompany them contain messages encoded in morse code.

  • Kryptos Contains Over A Thousand Characters, But Only 97 Remain Unencrypted

    The encrypted portion of Kryptos contains 869 characters, most of which have been solved. These characters have spelled out several words, which when strung together with all four panels should reveal some sort of hidden message. Unfortunately, the final 97 have been so difficult to crack that no one has come close to a solution in over a decade. Because of its difficulty, Sanborn himself released two clues he hoped would help cryptanalysts crack it, but nothing came from them.

    Hundreds of people have since devoted countless hours to determining what these final 97 characters are hiding and have theorized on how to solve it. One such theory is that they’re part of an underlying cipher table. Sleuths determined the second portion of the sculpture was laid out in a Vigenère cipher table, a method of encrypting alphabetic text by using several ciphers based on keywords. Theorists say it was then taken and laid on another Vigenère table altogether. Even with that theory, no "solutions" thus far have come close to the actual decrypted passage.

  • Solving All Four Passages Reveals A Final Mystery

    Solving All Four Passages Reveals A Final Mystery
    Photo: Kevin T. Quinn / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

    Interestingly, Sanberg noted the first three passages contain clues that will help break the fourth. And once all four messages are decrypted, they’ll provide the clues for yet another mystery. Specifically the fourth message contains a riddle that requires being on CIA grounds to solve. That makes it tough for anyone who isn’t an intelligence official.

    In a 2005 interview with WIRED, Sanborn said,

    In part of the code that’s been deciphered, I refer to an act that took place when I was at the agency and a location that’s on the ground of the agency. So in order to find that place, you have to decipher the piece and then go to the agency and find that place.

  • The First Three Passages Were First Solved By The NSA In 1992

    The First Three Passages Were First Solved By The NSA In 1992
    Photo: NSA / Wikimedia / Public Domain

    CIA analyst David Stein is believed to have solved the first three passages in Kryptos, eight years after it was first erected. It took 400 hours (and a pencil and some paper) for him to fully solve the messages, so it clearly was no easy feat. However, his solution was kept secret by the CIA for years. Then in 1998, a computer scientist by the name of Jim Gillogly publicly stated he had solved the first three messages through his computer.

    Little did either of them know the NSA solved the cryptograms years prior. Interestingly, the NSA only truly endeavored to solve the cryptographic messages when they were challenged by CIA deputy director William O. Studeman. The Z Group - the NSA’s cryptanalysis division - happily took on the challenge and provided their solutions within a year.

  • The First Two Passages Use The Vigenère Cipher

    The First Two Passages Use The Vigenère Cipher
    Video: YouTube

    A Caesar cipher is simple - letters in the alphabet have been shifted over a number of times so that each letter represents a different letter. The Vigenère cipher is a cryptographic system that utilizes multiple Caesar ciphers and creates a code much harder to crack. Specifically, it uses a tabula recta, which lists a 26x26 table that contains row after row of Caesar ciphers. It of course contains a keyword which is what enables encryption.

    Half of Kryptos is the entire encrypted message itself, while the other half is a Vigenère table modified with Kryptos in its alphabet. The keyword PALIMPSEST provides the table’s encryption key for the first passage. To decrypt the message, you have to pair each encrypted letter to the corresponding keyword place. As in, the first encrypted letter pairs with the first keyword letter, while the second pairs with the second, and so on. So, in Kryptos, the first seven letters - EMUFPHZ - is decrypted into ‘BETWEEN’.

    Using this method, the first two encrypted passages were solved.

  • The First Passage Is Relatively Short

    The first message in the Kryptos cipher is both short and weirdly haunting. By comparing the decrypted text to the encrypted text, one can get a feel for how extremely difficult it is to decode Kryptos

    Encrypted Text:

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