Inside Info on Kryptos’ Codes

Kim Zetter 01.21.05

Ed Scheidt is former director of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Cryptographic Center. Scheidt, who helped artist Jim Sanborn choose cryptographic techniques for his Kryptos sculpture, now works for TecSec, a Virginia company that does cryptographic work for the Department of Defense and other clients. This interview for the Wired News story on Kryptos was edited for length and organization.

Wired News: How did you help Jim Sanborn with Kryptos?

Ed Scheidt: I provided the cryptographic process as well as worked with him with what he was looking to do as far as the story (the sculpture would tell). We came up with a methodology using some of the known cryptographic solutions (at the time).

WN: How many cryptographic processes are used on the sculpture?

Scheidt: There are four different processes. Two of them are similar and the other two are different things. The first three processes were designed so that a person could, through cryptographic analysis, have access to the English language (on the sculpture). And the last process, I masked the English language so it’s more of a challenge now. It’s progressively harder in the challenges.

WN: What do you mean the first three were designed so that a person could have access to the English?

Scheidt: All four (sections) are done in the English language. The message could have been in another language. (But) this particular puzzle is in the English language…. The techniques of the first three parts, which some people have broken, (used) frequency counting and other techniques that are similar to that. You can get insight into the sculpture through that technique because the English language is still visible through the code. (But with) this other technique (in the fourth part), I disguise that. So … you need to solve the technique first and then go for the puzzle.

WN: Are all four of the processes known processes? There aren’t any that aren’t known, right?

Sheidt: The masking technique may not be known.

WN: What do you mean?

Scheidt: That’s part of the puzzle I told (Jim) I would keep secret.

WN: How difficult is it to solve that technique?

Scheidt: Well, (the sculpture) has been around (unsolved) about 15 years.

WN: Jim said that he took your techniques and then he deliberately masked them even more so that even you wouldn’t know what was in the puzzle.

Scheidt: Ah hah. I can’t respond to that one. I haven’t heard him say that before. It’s possible I guess. I haven’t talked to Jim on what he did, but I do know … there was some masking techniques that were used and that’s about it.

WN: So let’s say you might not know exactly how to decipher the coded text, but do you know the message that the text says once it’s decoded? The riddle within the text?

Scheidt: The solution to the text once it’s decoded (you mean). The last (section), I don’t know what Jim did, and I obviously haven’t gone back to see if there were changes and things like that. I know what we talked about.

WN: You never went back to the puzzle to see if he actually did what you discussed and to see if you could solve it?

Scheidt: No.

WN: So you may not know what the message says.

Scheidt: Obviously there could be a possibility. I know what the message was to be. (But) since he’s the one who had the chisel in his hands, there could be some changes.

WN: Is there anything buried at the site?

Scheidt: I’m not aware of anything being buried, no.

WN: But within the text that’s already been translated it does mention something being buried on the grounds of the CIA.

Scheidt: Well, the idea of encoding a message is not only to encode the externals of a message (the English language), but the message itself. Once it is readable, it may have other encoding that’s involved in it. That’s something that would show up in secret messages. If I wanted to, for instance, say (that) you and I are going to meet at 1 o’clock on Friday. We may establish a code that 1 o’clock on Friday is equal to “cake.” So in my message I would say how about you and I meeting at a convenient place for cake? Then you and I really know that cake means the time.

WN: So someone could translate the actual message but not know what the message means.

Scheidt: That’s right. And that’s where the masking and all these other kinds of techniques can come into play.

WN: Do you know of anyone at the agency who is currently trying to solve it?

Scheidt: I haven’t talked to anyone there about it. I would have to believe somebody would, at lunchtime, want to take a look at it. I think there are 98 characters left. That’s not a lot of characters. It’s a question of how would you approach it? Would you approach it mathematically? Would you approach it in the context of secret writings or symbols? There’s a whole array of things which offer a challenge.

WN: When the Cyrillic Projector was decrypted it referred to KGB documents. I kind of hope that Kryptos will have a larger meaning than point to a physical document.

Scheidt: I can only say the intent was to have a larger meaning.

WN: What do you mean by larger meaning?

Scheidt: Well, if I can remember right, intelligence gathering was one of the meanings that was wanted to be portrayed. Now intelligence gathering can take on a lot of meanings in its own self. It could mean the techniques of intelligence gathering. It could mean the process of intelligence gathering. It could be the result of intelligence gathering. It could take on a larger role. My understanding from a while back was that was the intent.

WN: But all of those things are limited to the realm of intelligence gathering. And what I’m hoping is that Kryptos translates into some kind of philosophical truth.

Scheidt: Knowing Jim, he would think along those lines. And just seeing it in some of his other work I think he would want to portray things of that nature. Philosophical things.

WN: Right. Some of his work before the coding pieces was related to nature’s secrets.

Scheidt: That’s right. So I would have to believe that would come out in his work in time. Another way of saying it is that as one peels the onion away, or the various cloaks, you come closer to the truth from a philosophical sense. And then where does it take you down that path? Well I would assume that the path will lead you down different ways, depending on your philosophical perspective. So it’s again back to is it a black-and-white answer or is it an answer that has a lot of gray areas?

WN: I assume that by the sculpture’s very nature it would have to have a lot of gray areas, like life itself. No black-and-white answers.

Scheidt: There you go. See? Philosophical.

WN: So you’re telling me that I won’t be disappointed.

Scheidt:: I don’t think (you will be). Just knowing Jim. In talking to Jim, he has philosophies that he would like to portray and this is a medium for him to do that. And also this is a project that has a lot of depth to it. It would give an artist a good opportunity to do a lot of things as opposed to be narrow in their approach.

reposted – Kryptosfan