Frequently Asked Questions About Kryptos

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 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.  The most famous is a wavy copper screen covered with about 1800 encrypted characters, next to a petrified tree, a gently rippling circular pool, and various types of rocks.  Other pieces include several large slabs of granite with sandwiched sheets of copper with morse code messages, a landscaped area with granite slabs and a duck pond, and an engraved compass with a needle pointing at a lodestone.

Q: Where exactly is Kryptos?

In the northwestern corner of the central courtyard of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The courtyard is between the Original and New Headquarters buildings, and also includes some granite slabs and the duckpond, which are in a semicircular landscaped area in the middle of the courtyard. The morse code and compass sections are on the other side of the New Headquarters building, near the walkway that leads to the front entrance. To get an idea of the complete layout, please see the Kryptos - A Bird's Eye View page.

Q: Where can I see pictures of Kryptos?

There are several photos scattered around the web. The two best collection sites are Jim Gillogly's photos of Kryptos and Elonka's collection of Kryptos images.

Q: Who created Kryptos?

A Washington DC artist named Jim Sanborn, in collaboration with a crypto expert named Ed Scheidt.

Q: What does the word "Kryptos" mean?

It is Greek for the word "hidden."

Q: Who solved the first three parts?

Jim Gillogly, a California computer scientist, was the first person to publicly announce a solution of parts 1-3, which he managed with a computer attack in 1999. After he announced his solution, the CIA announced that David Stein, a CIA analyst, had also solved parts 1-3 in 1998, and that he did it with pencil and paper methods. For more information about who did what and when, check the Kryptos Timeline.

Q: Was there anyone else who solved those parts before Gillogly and Stein?

According to a 2000 article in the Sun Journal (two years after Stein's solution), the NSA had a team that solved parts 1-3 in 1992, but just didn't tell anyone. There are also other people around the web who put up websites claiming that they did it first, but, well, talk is cheap, and it's very easy after a solution is announced, to claim that you did it earlier. Most of the claims fall apart when an attempt is made to actually verify them. The members of the Kryptos Group have looked closely at all of the claims, and the only one that looks like a plausible and verifiable claim to a pre-Stein solution is that of the NSA -- all the others appear to be hoaxes, and even the NSA claim is only from a single source (the Sun Journal article, 8 years after the "fact"). It is also worth mentioning that in the scientific community, it is not so important who does something first, as who does it and tells the world that they did it, in a timely manner, so that independent third parties can verify and confirm the solution. For this reason, the public cryptographic community generally celebrates Jim Gillogly as the first solver in 1999, even if there were people in the intelligence community who did it earlier. Also, for the record, no one, inside or outside of the intelligence community, has ever solved part 4.

Q: Who taught sculptor Sanborn about encryption?

The then Chairman of the CIA's Cryptographic Center, Ed Scheidt.

Q: How much did Kryptos cost?

$250,000 for the entire set -- the sculpture, the lawn area, and the front entrance morse code pieces.

Q: Has Sanborn made other encrypted sculptures with codes on them?

Yes. Some of them such as Antipodes contain the text of Kryptos, plus Russian-encrypted text.  One sculpture that was just cracked in September 2003, the Cyrillic Projector, used a double-keyword Vigenère system and turned out to be extracts from classified KGB documents. Sanborn's Binary Systems sculptures at the IRS Computing Center used binary/ASCII encoding.  He has also used binary on sculptures in Connecticut, and has created several pieces that use a variety of different languages.  Among all his sculptures, the cryptographic systems he's used most often (that we know about) are binary/ASCII, Vigenère, Caesar ciphers, and transposition.

Q: What is a Vigenère cipher?

Vigenère is what cryptologists call a polyalphabetic substitution cipher system, meaning that multiple alphabets are used to encrypt a single message. It was designed in the 16th Century, but then incorrectly attributed in the 19th century to a French cryptographer named Blaise de Vigenère (who had actually designed a different system that was more secure, called autokey). Because of the confusion, the related collection of cipher systems continue to be called "Vigenere" ciphers. For a long time, the system was considered to be unbreakable, but with modern computers, Vigenère ciphers can usually be cracked quite rapidly as long as there is a large enough amount of ciphertext to work from. For more information about Vigenère ciphers, please check here and here.

Q: What is Sanborn's background? What other types of art has he created?

Check here for more information on Jim Sanborn and his artwork. His official website is at jimsanborn.net

Q: Is Sanborn still alive?

Yes, alive and kicking. He was born in 1945, and makes his home in Georgetown.

Q: What ever happened to Ed Scheidt?

Scheidt retired from the CIA in 1990, and founded a computer security company called TecSec in Maryland, where he continues to work to this day.

Q: Did Scheidt have anything to do with the Cyrillic Projector?

When asked about this, Scheidt said no. However, a better answer might be, "Not directly," since the encryption systems used on the Projector were almost certainly ones taught to Sanborn by Scheidt, especially because Kryptos and the Cyrillic Projector have nearly identical styles of shifted alphabet tables on them.

Q: How famous is Kryptos?

On a list of "famous unsolved codes and ciphers", Kryptos is in the top 10. See Elonka's list of famous unsolved codes for more.

Q: What do the first three parts say?

We don't want to give too much away in this FAQ, but if you'd like to see the plaintext and decryption methods, check Elonka's Kryptos Page and look for the section entitled Spoilers.

Q: What do the morse code messages say?

SOS, LUCID MEMORY, T IS YOUR POSITION, SHADOW FORCES, VIRTUALLY INVISIBLE, DIGETAL INTERPRETATU, and RQ (or maybe YR if it's looked at upside down). Some of the messages appear to be truncated or disappear as they go under a granite slab, so "T is your position" may be a portion of a message that says, "What is your position," and "Digetal interpretatu" might be short for "digetal interpretation". Please check here for some pictures or here for transcripts of the dots and dashes.

Q: Why is there confusion as to whether Part 4 is 97 or 98 characters?

All of the characters on the ciphertext side of Kryptos have been solved, except for 97 characters at the very bottom. There is also a question mark between parts 3 and 4. Some say the question mark is part of part 3 (since it ends with the question, "Can you see anything q"). However, it's possible that the question mark is part of part 4. When Sanborn discusses the sculpture though, he describes the last part as being 97 characters.

Q: When will part 4 be solved?

When it's solved. :)

Q: Did you know that part 3 of Kryptos decrypts to a quote from Howard Carter?

Yes. It's a paraphrased extract from his November 26th, 1922 diary, on the day that he discovered King Tut's tomb. We've never been able to find an exact place that the Kryptos section was quoted from though. The closest we've found is an abridged section from the book "The Tomb of Tutankhamen" by Howard Carter, but the wording is still slightly different.

Q: Who is WW?

There was a lot of speculation on this for a long time, but Sanborn finally confirmed the answer in January 2005: WW stands for William Webster, who was the Director of the CIA at the time that Kryptos was installed, and according to Sanborn was one of the driving forces in getting more art for the Agency. When Kryptos was dedicated in 1990, Sanborn gave an envelope to Webster which allegedly contained the answers (however, Sanborn has since said that the envelope did not contain the full story).

Q: Some of the early accounts say that Kryptos was created in collaboration with a "prominent fiction writer." Who is this referring to?

No one. According to Sanborn, the "prominent fiction writer" concept was one from the early stages of design, but later it was decided not to use it. Or as Sanborn said, "It was one idea I considered in the beginning. I decided not to do it, why let someone else in on the secret?"

Q: Why are words misspelled in Parts 1 and 2? Is that a mistake?

No. Sanborn has said that those two errors -- iqlusion and undergruund -- are deliberate, but he didn't say exactly why. He did say that it wasn't what they were that was so important, as their orientation or positioning.

Q: There is a transcript of the sculpture on the CIA website, but it's different from the other transcripts available. Which one is correct?

The only accurate transcripts on the web, to our knowledge, are Elonka's transcript and John Wilson's transcript (Wilson's has the added advantage of marking the location of some of the out-of-alignment letters). The CIA transcript has multiple errors which they haven't gotten around to fixing yet. Doug Gwyn's transcript was the standard for a long time, but it was learned in 2003 that it had one omission on the tableau side (a missing "L"). If you would like to doublecheck things yourself, you can compare against the photos at Jim Gillogly and Elonka's respective webpages.

Q: Where do the latitude/longitude coordinates point to?

About 100' southeast of the sculpture. See Elonka's aerial view page or Xenon's plot page for more.

Q: Has anyone thought of . . . ?

There are a lot of speculative theories floating around. The following list includes a few of them. Note: If you've got an idea on solving Kryptos and see your idea listed here, that doesn't necessarily mean we've thought of the exact same technique (or that we did it correctly), so feel free to verify!

- Morse Code
- Palindromes
- Placement of rocks and other elements in the courtyard
- Shadows & sundials
- Egyptian references
- Magnetism
- The Philadelphia Experiment
- Folding one half of the sculpture on top of the other
- Connecting the two halves into a Jefferson Cypher Cylinder
- Using the ciphertext side as a book code
- Trying to decrypt part 4 by typing it into a WWII Enigma machine
- Holding a candle up to part of the sculpture and observing light rays
- Combining the methods of 1-3 to solve part 4
- Kryptos looks like a flag, an S, or printer paper

Q: Where can I learn about cryptography?

Check this link for a list of books and websites: Recommended Reading

Q: If I have an idea or information about Kryptos, how can I share it?

It depends if you have a quick brainstorming idea, or a complex concept you want to present. If the latter, the best thing to do is to post it on a webpage and then send the link along to the Kryptos Group. If the former, we recommend that you join one or both of the Kryptos brainstorming lists, and post your idea there. You may wish to join first, and then review the archives to see if the idea has already been presented. But if you're not sure, go ahead and bring up your idea! We'd rather hear the same idea five times, than to not hear a good idea because someone's afraid they're not being original!

Q: Where has Kryptos been discussed on the web in the past?

In terms of internet discussion groups, over the years, different lists have popped up, thrived, and then faded again. Many of the older Kryptos discussions can be found on the sci.crypt mailing list, which seemed to be one of the primary locations for Kryptos discussions through 2003. There was also an active discussion for awhile in 1999 on an ABC message board, but that seems to have been deleted.

Q: Where are the current active Kryptos discussion groups?

As of this writing in 2005, there are two extremely active Kryptos discussions on yahoogroups. One, founded in May 2003, is called simply "Kryptos" and is the primary discussion venue for ideas and discoveries about the sculpture. It is a moderated list where messages must be approved and members are expected to introduce themselves. Another list founded in December 2003 is called "kryptos_sculpture" and is more of a "pure brainstorming" list, where anything goes, and all ideas are welcome. Many people monitor both lists. If you're not sure which list to post on, the rule of thumb is this: If you have some cryptographic background and would like to present some statistics or a solid analysis or observation of Kryptos, you should definitely post it to the Kryptos list. Also, if you've never posted to either of the lists but just have one idea to present, you should probably post it to the main list. If you just want to toss out random ideas on a daily or hourly basis though, or a discussion starts which isn't directly related to Kryptos but still may be of interest to some of the group members, then the kryptos_sculpture list may be more appropriate. There's still a great deal of overlap and grey area between the two lists though: Occasional brainstorming ideas are fine to post to the kryptos list, and some solid analysis occasionally shows up on kryptos_sculpture. The important thing, is to get your ideas out there to other people, whichever list you choose.

Q: How do I join the discussion groups?

Send an email to one or both of the following addresses:

Q: I'd like to join one of the discussion lists, but I don't feel qualified!

Anyone who wants is welcome to join and listen, as long as they introduce themelves and stay constructive.  If you have an idea and don't feel comfortable posting it to the group, feel free to send it in private email to one of the moderators (such as Elonka), and you can get advice as to whether or not it's "group-worthy".

(personal from Elonka) It's my strong belief that the ultimate solution to Kryptos will be obtained not just by someone with a brilliant cryptanalytic mind, but as part of a group effort. I want lots of different viewpoints in the brainstorming group. Cryptographers, artists, students, doctors, hobbyists, writers, and even a few crackpots (of which I count myself as one!). I believe we can bring more to the problem by looking at it from many different angles, so don't be afraid to "think different"!

Q: Where can I learn more about Kryptos?

There are a few websites with collections of information, compiled by people such as Elonka, Xenon, and John Wilson. There is also quite a bit of information, ranging from pictures to videos to spreadsheets and other resources, in the database of the Kryptos Group, which you can access by subscribing to the group and reviewing the archives.

Q: Are you sure that Kryptos part 4 is solvable?

Yes. Both Jim Sanborn and Ed Scheidt have repeated over and over that it's solvable. Sanborn has also been quoted in interviews as saying he was surprised that it hadn't been solved yet. And when Elonka Dunin, co-moderator of the Kryptos group, asked him flat out in mid-2003 whether or not part 4 was solvable, his answer was: "Yes. It ain't easy, but it's solvable!"

Q: Is the code solvable by someone who doesn't work at CIA?

Yes. Though sculptor Sanborn has hinted that there may be more to the puzzle, even after the text has been solved.

Q: How can I help?

We need many different skills right now:

  • Librarians or other good researchers, to help find things such as an original 1920s version of Howard Carter's book, or information about Sanborn's sculptures in Taiwan and Japan.
  • Linguists to help translate some passages on other sculptures.  Languages we especially need right now are Iroquois, Ethiopian, and Chinese
  • Transcribers, to make digital transcripts of the text that would be helpful to other researchers.
  • Data entry and management people, to try and come up with ways to synthesize all of the brainstorming ideas and research that has been produced so far, into a format that new members can easily grasp.
  • Photographers, to get more images of some of Sanborn's other public works.
    • Little Rock, Arkansas: Ex Nexum
    • New Britain, Connecticut: Circulating Capital
    • Coral Springs, Florida: Libros
    • Fort Myers, Florida: Caloosahatchee Manuscripts
    • Kaohsiung, Taiwan: All The Ships Sailed in Circles
    • Kawasaki International Peace Park, Japan: (title unknown)
    • Houston: Multiple sculptures

Q: Is it possible for the public to visit CIA Headquarters in order to see Kryptos?

The short answer to this is, "No," especially with the recent increase in security caused by the events of September 11th. The FAQ on the CIA website, in answer to this question, refers the public to a section of the website called the CIA Virtual Tour with pictures of various locations around the property. If you try to just drive up to the gate and ask for a tour (as some of the members of the Kryptos Group have done), you will be turned away by large men with guns who will politely but firmly tell you that access is for those with "Official Business" only. If you'd like to try and ask for a tour anyway, you should work through the CIA's Public Affairs office.

Q: I work at CIA, or I have a friend/cousin/goldfish who visits CIA sometimes. Is there something we could check on for you?

Yes! Please check the CIAWishList for details.

Q: I'm going to be visiting Washington DC soon, can I help with any research?

Yes! Please stop by the Zola Spy Restaurant (next door to the new Spy Museum). Kryptos sculptor Jim Sanborn designed several elements of the restaurant's decor, and it's possible that some parts may give us clues towards Kryptos. For example, there's a "classified document wall" in the restaurant, with dozens of classified documents in English, Russian, and French from Sanborn's collection. We're trying to get closeup photographs of as many of those documents as possible.

Q: What does Kryptos have to do with the bestseller The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown?

Dan Brown is a big fan of cryptology, and has long been intrigued by Kryptos.  When he published his book, he hid some puzzles within the artwork of the bookjacket.  Two of those puzzles refer to Kryptos.  You can learn more about him, the book, and the puzzles by going to http://www.danbrown.com and clicking on "Secrets". For example, if you hold the backcover of the original U.S. version of the book up to a mirror and look very closely at the part near the Crais quote, you can faintly see the coordinates 37° 57' 6.5" N 77° 8' 44" W on one side (it's light red on dark red, so is hard to see). These are a clue to the coordinates in the deciphered text of part 2 of Kryptos, which are 38° 57' 6.5" N 77° 8' 44" W. We don't know why the book says 37 and Kryptos says 38, although when Dan Brown was asked, he replied, "This discrepancy is intentional." Another puzzle is on the backcover in the artwork of the brown "tear". In very faint script, upside-down, it is possible to make out the words "only WW knows."

In Fall 2003, Brown's webpage was also including questions about Kryptos as part of a contest challenge, such as to refer to Kryptos and "the one who knows the exact location", the initials WW, a link between "King Tut" and the CIA, and the latitude and longitude coordinates. These are references to the decrypted text of parts 2 and 3 of the Kryptos sculpture. In January 2004, it was announced that hundreds of thousands of people had participated in the challenge on Brown's site, and that 40,000 people had completed it.

Q: What does Kryptos have to do with Dan Brown's 2009 book The Lost Symbol?

The story of Kryptos and its three decrypted parts, seems to play a substantial part in Brown's novel. However, in true Brown fashion, the author has been mixing fact and fiction a bit.

For example, an early page in the novel says, "FACT: In 1991, a document was locked in the safe of the director of the CIA. The document is still there today. Its cryptic text includes references to an ancient portal and an unknown location underground. The document also contains the phrase 'It's buried out there somewhere.'"

This is obviously a reference to an envelope containin the answers to Kryptos, which was given by sculptor Jim Sanborn to William Webster in 1990, when Kryptos was dedicated. However, Brown's interpretation of the decrypted text of parts 2 and 3 is being given a bit of a fictional spin. The "ancient portal" does not mean that there is something ancient on CIA grounds, but instead is referring to Part 3, which has an extract of the diary of archaeologist Howard Carter on the day he discovered King Tut's tomb in 1922, in Egypt. This "ancient portal" is being combined by Brown with Part 2 of Kryptos, which decrypts to a message including the text, "The information was gathered and transmitted undergruund to an unknown location. Does Langley know about this? They should, it's buried out there somewhere."

Another link between Kryptos and The Lost Symbol is the character "Nola Kaye" in the novel. The name is an anagrammed form of "Elonka", the Kryptos researcher (your intrepid webmistress!) who helped Brown with some of the research for his novel.

Q: If I solved Kryptos, how would I announce it?

If you just want to send a solution directly to artist Jim Sanborn, he has a (very basic) website at http://kryptosclue.com, which was launched on November 19, 2010. If you wish to make your own public announcement, it is highly recommended that you get another cryptologist to verify your solution technique first. If you want to "timestamp" your solution, you should send an email to a mailing list such as sci.crypt or the Kryptos Group, or to any of the Kryptos Group moderators (and anyone else you trust) with a small amount of information that gives some proof that you solved it, but without giving everything away.  For example, you could say, "I've solved part 4.  The first half of the plaintext says, 'Four score and twenty years.'"  Then, you can communicate with people about the details of the system, but you'll still have the credit for the solution since no one else will be able to come up with the second half of the message until after you've told them how you did it.  Once your method has been verified, the Kryptos Group will be happy to assist you with the drafting of a press release or other public announcement, as was done for the solution of the Cyrillic Projector.

Q: What's to stop someone from saying they've solved Kryptos, even though they haven't?

In order to get full credit for solving Kryptos, the following things must be provided:

  • A readable plaintext
  • A method by which the plaintext has been derived
  • Sufficient explanation of the method, that an independent third party can verify the solution
Most hoaxsters try to claim a solution, or a method without a solution. But when questioned for enough data so that an independent third party can derive the same result, their claim crumbles.

Q: I have a question that isn't answered here. What should I do?

You have several different options:

  1. Send an email to one of the group moderators: elonka@aol.com or xenon@3dnature.com
  2. Join the Kryptos Group by sending an email to kryptos-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Then after your membership is approved, you can post your question to the Group by sending an email to kryptos@yahoogroups.com

Q: Who is Elonka?

Elonka Dunin is a professional game developer and part-time cryptographer. Co-founder and co-moderator of the Kryptos Group, she also led the team that cracked Sanborn's Cyrillic Projector cipher in September 2003, and is author of the 2006 book, The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms. Elonka first heard about Kryptos in 2000 when she won a prize for cracking a hacker challenge called the PhreakNIC v3.0 Code. Her interest increased when she had a chance to observe Kryptos up close in October 2002, while speaking at CIA Headquarters about Al Qaeda codes. Elonka's games are some of the longest-running multiplayer games on the internet. To learn more about Elonka, her bio is here. To learn about which games that her company produces, you can try a special "no credit card" free trial signup of one of them by clicking here, or take a look at all of the games by visiting the http://www.play.net website.


FAQ created December 14, 2003, and last modified on June 6, 2013

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