Nashville software developer Elonka Dunin spent the better part of two decades trying to unravel a mystery on the grounds of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Her enigma: Kryptos, an iconic sculpture with an encoded message that has stumped some of the best cryptographers in the world.
Dunin has a knack for cracking codes. She broke her first in 2000 — the PhreakNIC v3.0 code, created for the Nashville technology conference of the same name. Since then, she’s gotten so good at it that code-breaking competitions often disqualify her. One even left her a personal note in the rules sheet.
"At the bottom it said, 'Give someone else a chance, Elonka.' And so I cracked that one too," Dunin says. "They were a little upset, but what can you do?"
Dunin describes herself as an info-junkie. Before taking up cryptography, Dunin studied astronomy, traveled to every continent in the world, served in the Air Force as a spy plane technician and helped design text-based, dial-up-modem adventure games for the pioneering developer Simutronics. After she got into code-breaking, she authored The Mammoth Book of Secret Codes and Cryptograms.
But the mystery of Kryptos has eluded her for 16 years.
Dunin first discovered the sculpture while she was working on solving the PhreakNIC v3.0 code. It contained a number of dead ends and red herrings, one of which was a link to a page on the CIA’s website.
“And I see this sculpture Kryptos and I'm like, 'OK, it's one of the most famous unsolved codes in the world,' " she says. "But it planted a seed in me."
Kryptos was designed by artist Jim Sanborn in the late 1980s as a commission for CIA headquarters. Much of Sanborn’s work is about making invisible forces visible — for example, he illustrated the earth’s magnetic field with magnets and compass needles. But Kryptos does the opposite. It hides information in plain sight.
The sculpture is about 12 feet tall and 20 feet long. A curved copper sheet extends out of an upright petrified log, making it resemble a flag waving in the wind. Hundreds of letters are carved into the sheet so you can see through to the other side.
The text reads like gibberish, but it actually contains four secret messages. The first three were solved publicly in the late 90s. (For example, the solution to the first sections, K1, is a single sentence: “Between subtle shading and the absence of light lies the nuance of iqlusion.” The “q” in illusion is not a typo.)
The fourth section, K4, is the great unsolved mystery. It has become a pop culture phenomenon, featured in movies, songs, TV shows like J. J. Abrams’ Alias, and books like Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.
Solving the fourth code became an obsession for Dunin. She decided she had to see Kryptos in person. Shortly after 9/11, she visited her cousin in Washington, D.C., and they took a little side trip to Langley.
It did not go well.
"Guards come pouring out, asking 'Who are you, and why are you here?' " Dunin says. "We were saying, ‘Hey is there a public tour day? Can we get an invitation from a congressperson?' And no, the guards were very firm."
Dunin was discouraged, but she didn’t give up.
She started giving talks around the country on steganography, a close cousin to cryptography. In cryptography, characters are transposed or rearranged to encrypt the message. In steganography, the original message is intact; it’s just hidden. At the time, Al-Qaeda was suspected of using steganography to hide messages inside the computer code making up digital images and videos.
"So in my talk, I put up a couple slides with the Kryptos sculpture," Dunin says. "And I’d say, ‘Boy, I’d love to give this talk at the CIA some day.' "
After one of those talks, at the Las Vegas hacker convention DEF CON, a stranger walked up to the podium. “They leaned across," Dunin says, "and they looked me in the eye and said, 'I work at Langley. I think I can get you in.' "
The contact arranged for Dunin to speak on steganography at CIA headquarters. In October 2002, one year first her first visit, she was back at the imposing gates with the intimidating guards. But this time instead of turning her away, they waved her through. She walked to the courtyard next to the cafeteria. And there was Kryptos.
“It was large. It was cold,” Dunin says. “I was in this mode of trying to be hyper-observant and seeing everything I possibly could.“
She took pictures and made charcoal rubbings of the letters. When she got home, she posted them on her personal website.
"Then I started getting messages, e-mails from all over the world because now there was this central Kryptos information repository. It just kind of grew and grew, and I found myself getting invited to different places to speak on Kryptos."
A 'Tantalizing' Mystery
Over the last 14 years, Dunin has became known as the go-to source for Kryptos information. Nova ScienceNOW interviewed her for an episode on the sculpture. Dan Brown consulted with her while researching his Da Vinci Code follow-up, The Lost Symbol, Dunin says, and he even named a character after her — Nola Kaye, which is a partial anagram for Elonka.
Dunin now co-runs an online group with thousands of members dedicated to cracking the fourth code, K4.
"The main thing that makes it difficult is just that it's short," she says. "It's only 97 characters. It's really frustrating because [Sanborn] has actually told us a couple of the words that are in it, and we still can't solve the rest of it. It's tantalizing."
Those words are "Berlin Clock," which may reference Germany's famous clock that tells time by lighted fields. Of course, Dunin says, she would love to solve the fourth cipher herself, but more than anything, she just wants someone to solve it.
“People ask me if I have to be the one to solve K4," she says, "and I say, ‘No, I just want to see it solved.’ If I can be the person that provides enough information that it becomes solved, that will be very satisfying for me.”
And if that happens, Dunin says she'll breathe a sigh of relief — and move on to the next mystery.