Kryptos Complex: Cracking the Mother Lode of Codes
By Marcia Goodrich | Published
Gary Phillips II wants to set the record straight. Despite what Wired magazine says, he did not abandon his software business to devote all his waking hours to solving "Kryptos."
"I was already closing down my business," says Phillips, a junior majoring in computer science at Michigan Technological University. "I was changing careers." In 2004, he switched to construction. Then, in 2006, his life really changed when he was in a head-on collision.
For most people, being in a serious auto accident and out of work would be bad to the bone. Phillips looked on the bright side. "Being in an accident gave me time to do some things," he says.
Perhaps a little context is in order. "Kryptos" is an outdoor sculpture at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. Created by artist James Sanborn, the 3D oeurve includes a 10-foot high, serpentine wall of copper with 865 cutout letters making up four coded messages, each requiring a different key. It was installed in 1989 for the eyes of intelligence personnel only, half art, half high-end cryptogram.
Knowledge of "Kryptos" was largely limited to the community of professional code crackers until it surfaced in an epic Dan Brown page-turner that mingles Mary Magdalene and the quest for the Holy Grail.
"I discovered this sculpture in late 2003 after reading ‘The Da Vinci Code,'" says Phillips. "Some people are obsessed with sports, others with their work. My obsession happens to be numbers and codes."
That's when "Kryptos" set its hook and prompted Phillips to view his auto accident as a serendipitous event. "I was like, ‘Leave me alone, I'm cracking this code,'" he remembers.
"Kryptos" has all the appeal of forbidden fruit. "Obviously, its not for civilians," Phillips notes. And while three of its parts are solved, the fourth, K4, has stymied would-be code breakers inside and outside the CIA for nearly 20 years. "It's hard because we don't know how K4 is encoded," Phillips explains. "We're not given a key, and so we try to glean clues from the sculpture. It's like finding a needle in a haystack. We don't even know if the final result will be pure English."
"The only information we have is the sculpture itself, and we go off on these rabbit trails. It's designed to mislead you, to make you run in circles. Everybody's been doing that, including CIA employees."
Eventually, Phillips raised his head, looked around, and realized that "Kryptos," however intriguing, was just a word game and not likely to contain the secrets of the universe. And he listened to his wife.
"A couple years ago she told me she wished I had either solved it or never heard of it, because I was sitting in a corner all the time, growling at anyone who came close because I was thinking," Phillips says. "I've learned a lot since then."
He channels more energy toward his family—his son is now three years old—his piano playing and his website, Realmoftwelve.net. The site has become a gathering place of sorts for the Yahoo! Kryptos group. "The main thing my website offers the community is animations that explain how these codes are solved," Phillips says.
Phillips has garnered mentions in The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian for his "Kryptos" expertise. Most recently, he was contacted by Wired magazine and ended up in Steven Levy's May 2009 piece on Kryptos, "Mission: Impossible." In the article, Phillips's story morphed hyperbolically, and he emerged as an unnamed Michigan man who dumped his business to focus on solving the mystery.
It's not exactly true, though Phillips can relate. Through the website, he hears from plenty of Kryptos maniacs. He finds himself playing main mentor to a de facto Kryptos Anonymous 12-step group.
"Most of my time on the website involves talking with people in that obsession phase," he says. "For me, it's become very social. I'm not practicing code; I'm leading people out of their delusions. When you get 10 emails from someone in one day, and nine of them are asking if you read their first email, you know they have a problem.
"Nobody can get them out of that but themselves," he notes. "But I can say, look, take a break. It's just a puzzle."
Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.