Saturday, 15 March 2014

Kryptos : The Encrypted Sculpture

Kryptos,” the sculpture nestled in a courtyard of the agency’s Virginia headquarters since 1990, is a work of art with a secret code embedded in the letters that are punched into its four panels of curving copper.

It sits just steps away from some of the most brilliant cryptographers in the country, and yet after nearly 20
James Sanborn
years of trying no one has been able to unlock its secrets. OBJET D’ART In the late 1980’s, the General Services Administration, the federal agency responsible for building and operating government buildings, started accepting proposals for artwork to decorate a courtyard outside the cafeteria of the CIA’s new headquarters building in Langley, Virginia. One artist who submitted was James Sanborn, a sculptor from the Washington, D.C. area. Sanborn was struck by how CIA agents spend their entire lives keeping secrets from even their closest loved ones. He decided to put himself in their shoes: His sculpture, if accepted, would contain an encoded message- the CIA’s stock-in-trade—and only he’s take the secret with him to the grave, just like a CIA agent

Sanborn pitches his concept to the GSA and won the commission. But he’s an artist, not a code expert, so he asked the CIA for assistance in coming up with a code that would be difficult for even the agency’s own cryptographers to crack. They put him in touch with Ed Scheidt, chairman of the CIA’s Cryptographic Center, and known within the agency as the “Wizard of Codes.” Scheidt coached Sanborn for four months—he was free to teach any technique that did not compromise the agency’s security—and then Sanborn spent two and a half years cutting 865 individual letters, plus some question marks in rows onto a giant sheet of copper that was to be the main part of the sculpture.

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