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Cryptic Sculpture Cracked

7 October 2003 (All day)
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The Cyrillic Projector. The coded sculpture has been cracked.

Amateur cryptographers have deciphered an unusual code. The decrypted cipher appears to be a snippet of a KGB training manual--but the code wasn't found in a sheaf of top-secret papers. It was inscribed in a luminous sculpture on the campus of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

The "Cyrillic Projector" is just one of a number of code-bearing sculptures created by artist James Sanborn. The most famous, Kryptos, made front-page headlines in 1999 when code-breakers deciphered three-quarters of the secret message in the stone and metal sculpture. The last part, however, is still uncracked.

When Sanborn enthusiasts posted transcripts of the Cyrillic Projector's text on the Web in June, Mike Bales, a computer programmer in Michigan, and Frank Corr, a computer programmer in North Carolina, set out to crack it. "I hoped that the Cyrillic Projector could shed light on the last part of Kryptos," says Bales. By analyzing the statistical characteristics of the encrypted text, the two cryptographers independently discovered that the code was a variant of a well-known (and crackable) encryption scheme known as a Vignère cipher. But the resulting plaintext was Russian--a language neither code-breaker knew. "I went out and bought a Russian dictionary; then I went out and bought a better dictionary," says Corr. "It's really pretty gruesome if you don't know the language."

Nevertheless, determination trumped linguistic ignorance, and by mid-September, game designer and amateur code-breaker Elonka Dunin had the plaintext translated--it appears to be a fragment of a KGB document about the morality of spying and a bit of a speech by dissident Andrei Sakharov. "When we were first translating, we thought, 'Ooh. Heavy stuff,' " says Dunin. "It was very exciting."

Although Corr and Bales are proud of their achievement, they both say that the code doesn't reveal anything about the uncracked section of Kryptos. So it appears that, for the time being, the meaning of Kryptos is still hidden.

Related sites
More about Sanborn and his art
More about the solution to the Cyrillic Projector

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