Another clue in the 24-year-long mystery of C.I.A. Kryptos

After years of unsuccessful guessing from fans and code-breakers all over the world, James Sanborn decided it was time for a new clue to unlock the last enigmatic message hidden behind his sculpture Kryptos.

The Kryptos Sculpture (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Kryptos Sculpture (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This exciting story begins in 1988 when the CIA asked artist James Sanborn to create a cryptographic-inspired sculpture for a courtyard at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Two years later, Sanborn completed the piece of art which consisted of two parts: stones laid out in International Morse code and a 12-foot-high, verdigrised copper, granite and petrified wood plate. Since its inauguration and for more than 24 years now, the sculpture has captured the interests of thousands of people as the artist hid, behind the almost 1,800 characters carved out of the copper plate, four encrypted messages.

In 1998, CIA analyst David Stein deciphered the first three messages – just using paper and pencil and after spending some 400 hours’ worth of lunch. The news however remained classified until years later allowing California computer scientist Jim Gillogly to get public recognition in 1999 for cracking – this time using a Pentium II – the same three messages. This is the official story because documents released by the National Security Agency show that the NSA had deciphered them some six years earlier in 1993. The Fourth message, shown below, is yet to be decoded:

The 4th and last, yet to be solved, enigma of the Kryptos sculpture

The 4th and last, yet to be solved, enigma of the Kryptos sculpture

In 2010, the grown impatient artist James Sanborn released a clue announcing that the 64th to the 69th characters of the final panel spell out the word “BERLIN”. The clue did not seem to help as much as Mr Sanborn hoped and so almost five years later he decided to get a bit more ‘explicit’ and revealed that characters 70th to 74th spell “CLOCK”. When asked whether the “BERLIN CLOCK” part of the message refers to the homonymous public timepiece in Berlin, Sanborn replies: “There are several really interesting clocks in Berlin, you’d better delve into that particular clock”, but with all the intriguing timekeepers in the city “There is a lot of fodder there” – he adds.

Thousands of casual fans and dedicated enthusiasts are now back to their desks trying to decipher the last missing piece of the puzzle. Recently, Edward M. Scheidt who worked with Mr Sanborn on the cryptographic schemes was asked whether he would have expected to find people still banging their heads against Kryptos so many years later.  “No, not really” – he cheerfully commented with a chuckle – “But a technique that I used obviously worked.”

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Carlo Bradac

Carlo Bradac

Dr Carlo Bradac is a Research Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). He studied physics and engineering at the Polytechnic of Milan (Italy) where he achieved his Bachelor of Science (2004) and Master of Science (2006) in Engineering for Physics and Mathematics. During his employment experience, he worked as Application Engineer and Process Automation & Control Engineer. In 2012 he completed his PhD in Physics at Macquarie University, Sydney (Australia). He worked as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sydney University and Macquarie University, before moving to UTS upon receiving the Chancellor Postdoctoral Research and DECRA Fellowships.

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