Cracking the CIA Kryptos Sculpture




"The most celebrated inscription at the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, used to be the biblical phrase chiseled into marble in the main lobby: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." But in recent years, another text has been the subject of intense scrutiny inside the Company and out: 865 characters of seeming gibberish, punched out of half-inch-thick copper in a courtyard.

It's part of a sculpture called Kryptos, created by DC artist James Sanborn. He got the commission in 1988, when the CIA was constructing a new building behind its original headquarters. The agency wanted an outdoor installation for the area between the two buildings, so a solicitation went out for a piece of public art that the general public would never see. Sanborn named his proposal after the Greek word for hidden. The work is a meditation on the nature of secrecy and the elusiveness of truth, its message written entirely in code.

Almost 20 years after its dedication, the text has yet to be fully deciphered. A bleary-eyed global community of self-styled cryptanalysts—along with some of the agency's own staffers—has seen three of its four sections solved, revealing evocative prose that only makes the puzzle more confusing. Still uncracked are the 97 characters of the fourth part (known as K4 in Kryptos-speak). And the longer the deadlock continues, the crazier people get."
  - Wired Magazine

CIA Kryptos Website

(for non-members, don't forget to click the "next" button at lower right.)

Step 1: Step Back!!!

See that question mark at row 4, column 7?  Of course you do.  That's why it's there.  And now you're screwed because when you go looking for something that sticks out from the background, and you find something, well you are already drawn in and now you're lost.  You have no idea what you are even looking for. 

What you should be doing is looking for a pattern.  And the only way you can ever see a pattern is to step back.  Once you step back you'll see the pattern. In this case the pattern is white noise.  Random letters and question marks.  No message here.

Without at least that one question mark, this puzzle would have been solved a long time ago.  A professional code cracker would have/should have recognized the pattern as white noise instantly.  But, with a couple question marks, it's not quite white noise.  But if you you take away the question marks, what do you have left?  White noise and 3 questions marks.  No information.  However, a much more powerful force is acting here.  The power of suggestion.  Jim Sanborn "suggested" that there was a secret message, which means nobody was going to doubt him.  Of course, I don't know the guy, so my first guess is that for 21 years, nobody has found anything... probably nothing there.  My immediate impression was that you could have a lot of fun with people who take your word for everything.   When I saw that first question mark, I was like... wait a minute... wait a minute... I know what's going on here.  Sanborn, being a brilliant artist, certainly knows exactly how to draw your eye to something, and leave you sitting there fixated for the rest of your life.

But, how about one last look in case I missed something.  Hmmm... now that I said the big pattern is random (from afar,) moving in for a closer inspection actually reveals an inner pattern.  It's the vowels.   They are way out of 3 sigma.  That means they're not random.  So, there's definitely a pattern there.  

Step 2: Step 2.

Hmmm... now you're talking!!!  Lots of stuff here.  But first, step back.  If you do that, you'll see the pattern.  I'd call it pink noise.  Or crowd noise.  It has some recognizable things about it, but so much that it all cancels out.  No information here.  Just random syllables, no message.  On the other hand, if you insist on finding a message, I'm sure you can come up with something if you spend enough years working at it.  There's some interesting stuff on Wikipedia, which I'm glad I didn't see until after I looked at the CIA website, otherwise I'd probably still be working on it.  I saved it because there's a lot of real cryptography information there that I don't know anything about.  

Wikipedia Solutions

Step 3: Panels 3 and 4

Panels 3 and 4 go together.  And, that's the secret coded message.

Altogether, it says "Jim Sanborn, 1988 Kryptos."  It's the only thing missing.  Every artist signs his work.

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Step 4: Pattern Recognition

I should point out that pattern recognition is a very powerful tool when trying to boil down complicated problems. For example, regarding the how and why the $1billion dollar failed border security system happened?  Answer:  Inter-agency rivalry!!!

That's 8 syllables.  Check out that compression ratio...

         Compression ratio= $1 Billion / 8 = $125 million : 1



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    7 Discussions


    7 years ago on Introduction

    I'm not quite clear on your thesis here...what are you really driving at? That there is no actual message contained in Kryptos?

    1 reply

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    My point is that all of the "solutions" found on Wikipedia are wrong. Not only are they ridiculous, one look at panels 3 and 4 immediately shows the word "kryptos" on the diagonal from panel 3 top right to panel 4 bottom left. So, those 2 panels are solved. I'd like to know why nobody else has pointed out the obvious solution to panels 3 and 4, which is 50% of the puzzle. It's just very strange behavior. Panel 1 looks like random letters, but there is a man-made pattern there. Any time the probability of a character combination is low, but these low probability events happen over and over, you can assume it's man-made, and thus part of the puzzle. Panel 2 is like panel 1 except it's random syllables with a noticeable man-made pattern occuring.