Decrypting the Kryptos

This may sound like a movie script, but it is completely true: in October 1990, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters at Langley (which, by the way, is not Langley,VA, as many believe, but the Langley suburb of McLean,VA, in case you plan to visit), unveiled a strange, intriguing sculputre named Kryptos (“hidden” in Greek), – by sculptor James Sanborn and cryptoman Ed Scheidt, ex-director of the CIA’s Cryptographic Center.

Kryptos (presentation requires Flash), is made of a large curved wall (which, according to the artist is made of “[p]olished red granite, quartz, copperplate, lodestone, encoded text, myscanthus grasses, water, and petrified wood”. ) The copper wall depicts a scroll or a sheet of paper and is filled with characters – cut out letters of the alphabet – that make up the encrypted message. Kryptos comprises of four textual sections and, according to Wikipedia, “The characters consist of the 26 letters of the standard alphabet and question marks cut out of the copper. This “inscription” contains four separate enigmatic messages, each apparently encrypted with a different cipher.”

Three of the four sections have been solved by CIA analyst named David Stein (who apparently shares a name with David Stein the mime and David Stein the salsa dancer), and – separately and using a Pentium computer, American computer scientist and cryptographer named James J. Gillogly, in 1999. The fourth section (aka K4) remained unsolved, elusive and incomprehensible, for almost ten years. I carried the Kryptos story in the ‘Notes’ section of my Writing folder – occasionally visiting some of the more active (vocal?) forums covering the subject – nothing new has been noted, Until now, that is.

Sunday 23 November’s edition of the brilliant community blog, Metafilter, broke the news that someone has managed to break the 4th and last section of Kryptos:

Christopher Farmer is founder and president of OPORD Analytical, “predictive national security intelligence company that creates and disseminates clear and concise intelligence products for a variety of customers within the private sector and the United States Federal Government.” Farmer’s bio, available in the intro to the document with his K4 solution (PDF) makes one suspect that he probably knows the current location of Kryptos and the surrounding complex pretty well. Excerpt: “Mr. Farmer … is an expert on terrorism, revolutionary theory and emerging revolutionary movements, ideology linguistics and political violence … [he] has conducted extensive travel abroad to over two dozen foreign countries, including some of the most dangerous areas of human conflict in the last twenty years. His travels and experience in the global community have spanned multiple continents from Central America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East …

Farmer’s document has 18 pages (PDF), filled with tables — it is a fascinating log, but I must admit that most of it simply went over my head.

The Kryptos keys (note that there are numerous versions of these keys):

K1:
BETWEEN SUBTLE SHADING AND THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT LIES THE NUANCE OF IQLUSION

K2:
IT WAS TOTALLY INVISIBLE HOWS THAT POSSIBLE ? THEY USED THE EARTHS MAGNETIC FIELD X THE INFORMATION WAS GATHERED AND TRANSMITTED UNDERGRUUND TO AN UNKNOWN LOCATION X DOES LANGLEY KNOW ABOUT THIS ? THEY SHOULD ITS BURIED OUT THERE SOMEWHERE X WHO KNOWS THE EXACT LOCATION ? ONLY WW THIS WAS HIS LAST MESSAGE X THIRTY EIGHT DEGREES FIFTY SEVEN MINUTES SIX POINT FIVE SECONDS NORTH SEVENTY SEVEN DEGREES EIGHT MINUTES FORTY FOUR SECONDS WEST X LAYER TWO

K3
SLOWLY DESPARATLY SLOWLY THE REMAINS OF PASSAGE DEBRIS THAT ENCUMBERED THE LOWER PART OF THE DOORWAY WAS REMOVED WITH TREMBLING HANDS I MADE A TINY BREACH IN THE UPPER LEFT HAND CORNER AND THEN WIDENING THE HOLE A LITTLE I INSERTED THE CANDLE AND PEERED IN THE HOT AIR ESCAPING FROM THE CHAMBER CAUSED THE FLAME TO FLICKER BUT PRESENTLY DETAILS OF THE ROOM WITHIN EMERGED FROM THE MIST X CAN YOU SEE ANYTHING Q (?)

K4:
OUR WIN AT CIA TEAM SLLOGAN

Bruce Schneier, one of the world’s formost experets on cryptography, has this to say in the preface to his bookApplied Cryptography: Protocols, Algorithms, and Source Code in C“: “There are two kinds of cryptography in this world: cryptography that will stop your kid sister from reading your files, and cryptography that will stop major governments from reading your files.” Is there a message that can be understood from the creation and the evnentual decyphering of Kryptos at the headquaretrs of one of the world’s most secretive organisations?

To quote one of the parcitipating sleuths on Famrmer’s Opord blog — “When it comes to binary, there are 10 types of people, those who get it and those who don’t.”

Got it?

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