In 1990, artist Jim Sanborn was commissioned to create a cryptographic sculpture for the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The sculpture, called Kryptos, is a large copper plate with four sections of encrypted text on it. The first three sections were successfully solved in the years following the sculpture’s installation, but the fourth section remained a mystery for almost three decades.
However, in 2020, a team of cryptanalysts led by Elonka Dunin announced that they had solved the first part of the fourth section. This breakthrough was achieved thanks to the discovery of a small spelling mistake that had been made in the original ciphertext.
The section in question consists of 97 characters, and is known as K4. The first part of K4 was previously solved in 2010, but the second half remained a puzzle. The breakthrough came when Dunin and her team discovered that the 26th and 27th letters of the ciphertext, which had always been assumed to be the letters «EE», were actually «EY». This finding allowed the team to begin decrypting the text.
The decrypted sequence reads as follows: «NYPVTT. HCNUMY. OPRKBA. XIBAEA. KR». Despite the relative brevity of this sequence, its meaning is still unclear. Sanborn has stated that Kryptos contains a message that refers to a «historical figure», but he has not specified who this figure might be. Many theories have been proposed over the years, but so far none have been confirmed.
While the solution of the first part of K4 might seem like a minor breakthrough, it is actually a significant achievement in the history of cryptography. Kryptos has long been considered one of the most challenging ciphertexts in the world, and many of the world’s leading cryptographers have attempted to crack it over the years. The fact that a small group of hobbyists were able to make progress in solving it is a testament to the enduring appeal of cryptographic puzzles.
The discovery of the mistaken «EE» in K4 also serves as a reminder of the importance of careful proofreading in the field of cryptography. Even a small typo can render a ciphertext much more difficult to solve, and can sometimes lead even the best cryptanalysts down the wrong path. In the case of Kryptos, it seems likely that the mistake would have gone unnoticed for many more years if not for the efforts of Dunin and her colleagues.
Overall, the solution of the first part of K4 marks a significant milestone in the history of Kryptos. While the final solution of the sculpture’s fourth section remains elusive for now, the progress made so far is a testament to the skill and dedication of the cryptanalysis community. Perhaps one day we will finally learn the full meaning of Sanborn’s enigmatic creation.