Cracking the Kryptos Code

In 1990, a sculpture named “Kryptos” (greek – hidden) was dedicated in a courtyard inside the Langley headquarters building of the CIA. The sculpture is made of large copper plates that display nearly 900 text characters. The characters are an encrypted message intended to be a challenge to cryptologists.

CIA Releases Analyst’s Fascinating Tale of Cracking the Kryptos Sculpture – []

It took eight years after artist Jim Sanborn unveiled his cryptographic sculpture at the CIA’s headquarters for someone to succeed at cracking Kryptos’s enigmatic messages.

In 1998, CIA analyst David Stein cracked three of the sculpture’s four coded messages after spending 400 hours diddling over the problem with paper and pencil during many lunch breaks.

Though many people, on and off the CIA campus in Langley, Virginia, had tried to break the 865-character coded puzzle, Stein, a member of the agency’s Directorate of Intelligence, was the first to succeed.

Only his CIA colleagues knew about his achievement at the time, however, because he wasn’t allowed to go public with the news. A year later, California computer scientist Jim Gillogly stole the spotlight when he announced that he’d cracked the same three messages, only he used a Pentium II to do it.

In 1999, Stein wrote a fascinating account of how he cracked the messages. The suspenseful 11-page tale, which appeared in the CIA’s classified journal Studies in Intelligence, is one of perseverance and pluck, not unlike the epic story of Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick (Stein himself references the literary tale in his entertaining piece).

This week, the National Security Archive published the now-unclassified document after receiving it from the CIA. Though the article has been published publicly before, it’s never been widely disseminated.

The Puzzle at CIA Headquarters – Cracking the Courtyard Crypto (U) – David D. Stein – []

Editor’s Note: In the late 1980’s, under a GSA program, the CIA commissioned Washington artist, James Sanborn to create a series of sculptures for CIA’s new Headquarters building. Working together with Ed Scheidt, who was soon to retire from the Office of Communications, Sanborn created a sculpture named “Kryptos” (Greek for hidden) that was dedicated in 1990 and now resides in the northwest corner of the courtyard. The curving verdigris scroll contains an 865-character coded message that seems to flow out from a petrified tree and is located near a water-filled basin bordered by various types of stones. In the following article, David D. Stein describes how he has deciphered most of the secret message contained within the sculpture.

The Kryptos Project – []

Q: What is Kryptos?
“Kryptos is a sculpture located on the grounds of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Installed in 1990, its thousands of characters contain encrypted messages, of which three have been solved (so far). There is still a fourth section at the bottom consisting of 97 or 98 characters which remains uncracked, and is considered to be one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world. Kryptos is composed of several sections…”

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