The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

4 Codes, 1 Sculpture: Kryptos

During the talk Elonka gave to the class on Friday, I found myself fixating on one thing, Kryptos. I was so surprised by the fact that there was a statue located on the grounds of the CIA, which has an unsolved code written on it. The CIA are supposed to be some of the greatest minds of our time, and they can’t solve a cipher that is quite literally sitting right in front of them.

To give a little more information, Kryptos is a large sculpture which contains four codes. Each of these codes was placed onto the sculpture by stamping through the metal, so that the letters are holes in the metal. The four codes were created by Ed Scheidt, who at the time was the Chairman of the CIA Cryptographic Center.  The first three codes have been solved, by the public and from within the CIA, but the fourth remains a mystery.

The connection between Kryptos and our course is fairly obvious. Four encrypted messages, or codes, in a class about codemaking and codebreaking? Sounds like exactly what we’re looking for I think. It’s also worth mentioning that the first codes use a Vigenere cipher, something that we were discussing in class at the time Elonka came to visit. Vigenere ciphers were the code standard for quite some time, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that they were used for a sculpture as famous as Krpytos.

Many famously unsolved codes were solved at a much later time. With this famous code sitting in front of some of the world’s best codebreakers, I am sure that Kryptos will soon be cracked. Maybe Elonka will be the one to solve Kryptos, or maybe even one of the students of our course.

Here’s a link to her Kryptos page:


Unsolved Codes and Ciphers


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  1. neuhofc

    When looking on Elonka’s website, I was also fascinated by the topic of Kryptos. As Andrew mentioned in his blog post, the first three codes of Kryptos have been solved, both by computer methods and using pen and paper. The fourth code, however, remains a mystery as no one has been able to solve this seemingly unbreakable code. While the first, second, and third codes were all solved in 1998 and again in 1999, it has been over 16 years since any Kryptos code has been completely cracked.
    What fascinates me the most about Kryptos is the irony behind the entire sculpture. The artist, Jim Sanborn, worked with CIA Cryptographic Center Chairman Ed Scheidt to create a code that would challenge both members of the CIA and aspiring codebreakers around the world. The location of Kryptos highlights the security of the code as its presence remains a constant reminder of its current “unbreakable” status.
    I also find it interesting how Sanborn included the initials “WW” within his sculpture, standing for William Webster, who was the Director of the CIA when Kryptos was installed in 1990. Sanborn has since clarified that Webster is in possession of an envelope containing the key to Kryptos. By blatantly including Webster’s initials within Kryptos, Sanborn seems to be emphasizing the tangibility of the code.
    I believe that the most compelling aspect of Kryptos is that it is “so close but yet so far.” While the fourth code has remained unsolved for years, it continually sits right in front of masterminds of the CIA, waiting to be uncovered. I have no doubt that one day soon the final code of Kryptos will be broken as its location and compelling past bring about the desire to discover the secret known by so few.

  2. Abbey

    I agree with Charlotte and Andrew; I was intrigued by the Kryptos sculpture, the fascination of many code breakers with the sculpture, and the irony of that fact that it is literally in the CIA’s front yard. Furthermore I am really interested by the K4 portion of the cipher, the unsolved section. The sculptor Jim Sanborn has released two hints about the cipher, one in 2010 telling what one word is, and another four years later giving the word immediately following the first released word. That means that 11% of the cipher has been converted to plaintext, but because no one knows how the cipher was created, still no one has made progress in deciphering K4. Sanborn said that the cipher text “NYPVTT” is the plaintext “BERLIN,” which actually rules out many ciphers, such as those where two plaintext letters are represented by one cipher text letter. I think the biggest challenge with K4 is the lack of substantial cipher text to run many conclusive tests; it is only 97 letters long. As we have discussed in class, with any kind of cipher, the more cipher text there is, the easier job the cryptanalyst has. Methods involving frequency analysis are far less accurate with small pieces of cipher text since several words with unusual letters will cause a much higher percentage of that letter than the standard English frequencies. However, as Charlotte pointed out, former CIA director William Webster is in possession of the key to this cipher. Maybe the best chance we have is to commit a little espionage and steal the key…

  3. MisterE

    Abbey: “still no one has made progress in deciphering K4”

    No one? Hmm. Not publicly anyway. (Divide K4 and conquer.)

  4. Robert Kent

    Dear Sir,
    I solved part 4 of Kryptos several days ago. The first letter of the plaintext is ‘m’ and the last letter is ‘r’. The plaintext also contains the trifids ‘win’ and ‘act’. Just ask Jim Sanborn to confirm.
    Robert Kent
    PS Please pass my details on to Elonka Dunin and I will let her have the full decipherment.

  5. Sure, happy to take a look!

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