Hiding in Plain Sight
Kryptos is a sculpture created by James Sanborn in 1990. It’s located at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and it’s mostly known for the four encrypted messages on it.
Three of them have been decrypted (it took almost 10 years), but one has endured what is probably the biggest non-covert attempt at code-breaking in the world for almost 20 years. CIA analysts have been working on it, of course, but like Fermat’s Last Theorem, Kryptos has attracted the attention of amateurs all around the world. If you’re interested in throwing your hat into the ring, there’s a pretty active Krytpos Yahoo Group you can join.
Does This Tell Us Anything About the CIA?
But what I find most interesting about the Kryptos code is that its creator didn’t expect things to unfold that way:
Sanborn, who has had no training in cryptography, says that he collaborated with a prominent fiction writer in composing the text to be encoded, and then worked with a retired CIA encryption official for four months to create the code. He insists that the code can be solved and says that when he placed the sculpture at Langley, in the thick of the world’s best code-breakers, he thought it would take only months for them to solve Kryptos.
So he had no training in cryptography, but he worked with a CIA cryptographer so we can assume that the strength of the code mostly comes from that person. Yet even after getting counsel from him or her, he still expected the code to last only a few months. If someone with inside information and professional help overestimated the CIA by that much, chances are that people without inside access are overestimating the capabilities of the CIA by even more (when it comes to code-breaking, at least, but probably also for other things). And that’s not even counting the fact that in the past 20 years code-breaking techniques and computers have gotten better; Sanborn expected people to break his code with 1990 tools and knowledge.
Most people’s knowledge of the CIA comes from fiction (movies, books), and they are usually portrayed as being almost magically effective (they know everything, are always at the right place at the right time, etc).
But the reality might be closer to Kryptos than Hollywood. Legacy of Ashes by Tim Weiner argues that “America’s foes and rivals have long overrated the Central Intelligence Agency” and that the agency is “mainly a reservoir of incompetence and delusions that serves no one’s interests well.”
Kissinger told [Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai] that he “vastly overestimates the competence of the CIA.” Chou persisted that “whenever something happens in the world, they are always thought of.” Kissinger acknowledged, “That is true, and it flatters them, but they don’t deserve it.”
I haven’t read that book yet (it’s on my long “to read” list), but Weiner’s conclusions sound plausible: A huge government bureaucracy, even if it is doing spy stuff rather than healthcare or education, almost can’t help but become bloated and ineffectual.
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- Kryptos at Wikipedia
- CIA Sculpture Continues to Baffle Cryptographers (you can check out the rest of that site if you need a good laugh)
- The Risks of Failure of Nuclear Deterrence
- Automatically Duplicating Keys from Photos
- Nanotube-Based Chemical Sensors to Defend Against Chemical Attacks
- Metabolomics Could be Part of a BioShield