Kryptos and Other Unsolved Codes

Elonka Dunin: game developer by day, cryptographer by night. To clarify, she does not spend her free time in crypts; she makes and breaks codes, and her obsession in recent years has been the Kryptos sculpture at CIA headquarters, Langley.

Kryptos is a commissioned copper structure out of which an apparently random series of letters was carved by artist and sculptor James Sanborn. The letters in fact form a complex code devised by Sanborn following a crash course in cryptography with the former head of the CIA, Ed Scheidt. Despite being inexperienced in encryption, Sanborn managed to create a code which has still not been fully broken, despite years of attempts by leading cryptographers and hobbyists. Californian computer scientist Jim Gillogly even wrote a program to solve the sculpture’s mystery at the speed of modern technology and, using letter frequency (some letters, such as E and T, occur more frequently than others, such as Q and V, in English words) and other methods, he has decoded part of the sculpture.

The third part is a paraphrasing of Howard Carter’s notes after he entered King Tutankhamen’s newly-opened tomb: “Slowly, desparatly [sic] 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…” But even hi-tech methods have so far only been able to decrypt the first three sections of the code: the fourth and last section remains an enigma.

Here it is, if you want to have a go. The question mark may or may not be part of the previous section:


Ms. Dunin actually got her start as a cryptographer at Dragon*Con, when she came across an unsolved code and just had to crack it, so in her words, “Thank you Dragon*Con!” She won prizes for her code-breaking, beginning with the PhreakNIC code, and continued her winning streak until competition organizers would ask her not to apply again! She had a hard time getting into the CIA headquarters to see the Kryptos sculpture up close, and it’s safe to say that she is one of a very small number from outside the CIA to be able to inspect the original code.

As a respected cryptographer, following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, she offered her services to her local FBI branch and was eventually invited to give a talk about steganography, the practice of hiding messages in pictures. The FBI was especially interested in steganography at the time because some indecent images had been discovered on Al Qaeda computers and they were wondering whether Osama bin Laden was communicating through these unexpected pictures. The determined Ms. Dunin discovered the location of the CIA headquarters at Langley by studying satellite images, but after all her hard work and research she was turned away by armed guards. After giving similar talks to various organizations–and hinting each time, “Boy I’d really love to give this talk at Langley!”–Ms. Dunin was invited to speak at DEFCON, where a CIA employee gave her a business card which led to her obtaining the “official business only” quest item required to get past the big guys with big guns.

Codes can fall into one, two, or more categories, for example substitution ciphers, in which each letter is substituted with another; transposition ciphers, where the letters are scrambled in a predetermined way; concealment, in which the words of the message are hidden from all but the recipient, for instance by spelling words phonetically before encrypting the letters; and many more. Historical codes were mentioned briefly, such as Julius Caesar’s simple substitution cipher, the Enigma machine used by the Nazi government during World War II, and General Ulysses Grant’s encoded orders to his officers. Many other famous unsolved codes were covered during the panel, including another of Sanborn’s creations, a similar sculpture to Kryptos but encoded in the Cyrillic alphabet. That also took some years to crack, but it turned out to contain excerpts from classified KGB files! The story of how he got hold of the documents is probably safer left a mystery…

The Oak Island money pit is a telling example of how the promise of wealth can exaggerate a site’s importance. Discovered by accident in 1795, a pulley system in a tree overhanging a deep pit sparked tales of long-lost treasure that brought hordes of hopeful hunters to the area. Stories of buried treasure will always excite a lot of interest, as in the case of the Beale Ciphers in the first half of the 19th century. A pamphlet containing a series of numbers appeared out of the wilderness, supposedly referring to specific words in the Declaration of Independence which would direct the successful codebreaker to the exact location of a hoard of buried treasure. Many cryptographers believe this cipher to be a deliberate hoax because of inconsistencies and the lack of any corroborating documents; perhaps it was written to encourage settlement and prospecting.

As for Kryptos, Ms. Dunin has taken both Mr. Scheidt and Mr. Sanborn out for strategically tongue-loosening drinks, but so far neither has let slip the key to the code.

Author of the article

Anne Chadwick has been dashing off terrible artwork at her home in rural England for only a very short while. She started life as a singer and viola player (please send any amusing viola jokes to but has turned her hand to proofreading because the world needs writing—ahem—righting. Another passion of hers, alongside music and championing good usage of English, is the learning of other languages. The current target is Arabic, through classes, book-learning, reading Arabic literature and—most important when learning any new language—interacting with real live native speakers; in this case, Arabs. Her current addiction to crochet leaves little time for other relaxing occupations but her comic bats keep her company when the hooks just won't do what she wants them to do. You may see her modelling (or "modeling" in America!) the odd crocheted creation around the con, if you look closely enough.