Code-breakers are the shooting stars who straddle the divide between art and science, but you don’t have to be Alan Turing to push boundaries. SPYSCAPE has curated the world’s toughest puzzles, unique challenges to match wits with the sharpest minds in the universe. How do you match up?
1. Long before NASA’s Perseverance rover to Mars challenged the world to 'dare mighty things', the space agency created a secret language to communicate with aliens.
NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 blasted off in 1977 to study the outer solar system and planets, and the space probes are still out there. Each carries a Golden Record, a message to any extraterrestrial life they might encounter. The records offer greetings in 55 languages, recordings of birdsong and whales, and music ranging from Beethoven to Louis Armstrong’s Melancholy Blues.
A stylus attached to each record can be used to listen to the album from the outside inward. NASA didn’t know how to explain the stylus to aliens, however, so the space agency invented a coded language for the record cover, hoping it would be deciphered by any extraterrestrials that come across Voyager 1 or 2. Can you crack the alien code? (Answer at the bottom of the page.)
2. The superspies at Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) employ code-makers and code-breakers who help block up to 2bn potential cyber-attacks every day, so they know a thing or two about foreign signals intelligence. CSEC recommends SPYSCAPE readers try solving The Cyber-Dyner, deeming it to be their toughest virtual challenge. (Answer at the bottom of the page.)
CSEC has also helped build Ottawa’s The Recruit for potential spies, a real-life challenge to break out of three locked rooms in 45 minutes. One enterprising group even formed a human pyramid to push through ceiling panels looking for (non-existent) clues. Only one person has so far fled the CSEC Escape Rooms - and they’re not giving interviews.
3. The cryptanalysts at the FBI Laboratory are pros at code-cracking so don't expect an easy time cracking this dot code. (Answer at the bottom of the page.)
Bureau wannabes may want to hone their skills with an FBI practice test, a three-hour exam focused on logic-based reasoning, figural reasoning and situational judgment - and that’s just the first test budding agents must take!
4. Can you pick out a face in a crowd? Recognize patterns? Think quickly on your feet? You’ll need those qualities and more to pass Australia’s Secret Intelligence Service’s virtual reality test. Have you clicked the link and given it a try? Fair go, but don’t go walkabout. If you pass, you'll get a code to use in your job application. If not… G’day mate.
5. The Dutch are mad about puzzles. The General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) - The Netherlands’ equivalent of the CIA - has been designing the year-end challenge since 2011 and it is not for the faint of heart. The 2020 kerstpuzzel runs to 23 pages.
What started as a slow drip, attracting just 27 people in 2011, now draws hundreds - some years even thousands - of Dutch puzzlers. They don’t just compete to solve the problems, they race to find minuscule mistakes, finding joy in calling out the security service.
AIVD gives competitors more than a month to submit solutions, and they need it. Some of the problems take hours, and some even days to resolve. Those who score more than 100 points (and no one did in 2017 or 2019) get to join the Club of 100, created to honor like-minded winners. Those who’d rather hold onto their answers and their pride can find a link to the 35-page AIVD Answer Sheet at the bottom of this page.
6. The US National Security Agency (NSA) challenged code-breakers to solve their puzzle with barely a clue: ‘Everything you need for the solution has been provided.’ The NSA also teased that the puzzle does not require a large cryptography or computer science background to solve - although we’re guessing that would help! Although the NSA doesn’t provide the answer on its website, the agency made an exception for SPYSCAPE readers. The NSA's answer is at the bottom of the page, but no cheating!
7. The CIA are master puzzle-setters, regularly Tweeting out challenges including the one above from early 2020. (Answer at the bottom of the page.)
There is one puzzle even the CIA can’t solve, however. SPYSCAPE has left the toughest for last, so you’ll need to be patient to discover what’s stumped the Agency’s best and brightest.
8. Anyone who’s heard of Bletchley Park knows Britain’s code-breakers are among the world’s elite.
The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) releases its annual brain teaser at the end of each year and 2020’s mind twister lived up to its billing as Britain’s toughest spy puzzle. Helpfully, GCHQ provides a few tips for less experienced code-breakers.
From time to time, GCHQ also sets puzzles for the BBC and amateur competitors. GCHQ rates the puzzle below as four out of six on its Enigma Rotor Scale meaning the code is a meaty challenge, probably one where puzzlers may want to collaborate with others.
Here's a clue: identify Samuel, Louis and Ludwik. There are links between them. (The answer is at the bottom of the page.)
9. When the FBI set the coded puzzle (below) in 2009, the Bureau called it their toughest challenge to date. It remains as incomprehensible now as it was then - that is, unless you know more about the history of code-breaking in the US.
Clue to Puzzle 9: A US civilian came up with the idea of using the Navajo language as military code during World War II. By September 1942, the US government had recruited several hundred Native Americans to translate English words into the Navajo language. In 2001, 28 Navajo Americans were awarded Congressional Gold Medals, mostly posthumously. (Answer at the bottom of the page.)
10. For three decades, the CIA’s Kryptos puzzle at the Langley, Virginia HQ has confounded agents, academics, computer scientists and anyone else who dared to dream about solving it. The 12-foot copper statue, erected in 1991, seems to be a collection of random letters known as Kryptos but it is a riddle for the ages. Only three of the four passages hidden on the puzzle have been decrypted. Can you solve it?
Puzzle sculptor Jim Sanborn has offered some clues. Here’s the Kryptos transcript in full:
The NSA’s methods and solution to the first three panels are at the bottom of the page, offering further hints for those who dare mighty things!
3. The FBI Dot Code Deciphered Answer reads as follows:
This time we used dot codes for each alphabet character. A little harder perhaps. Well done if you were able to solve it.
4. Australia’s Virtual Challenge: If you’ve passed the intelligence test, you will be given a code at the end of the test for an interview. If not, better luck next time.
6. National Security Agency ‘Be Nice, Play Fair’ puzzle - The full answer for the NSA puzzle is as follows:
Plain Text Decoded. The National Security Agency leads the US gov in sigint and cybersecurity. Our core values are commitment to service, respect for the law, integrity, transparency, respect for people and accountability. To learn more please visit us at sos-vo.org/comeinsideandhaveacuppatea
7. CIA Tweet Puzzle Answer:
Roses are red, violets are blue. Happy Valentine’s Day, from the CIA to you
8. GCHQ Quiz Answer:
Tim said: “We need diversity of thought in the world to face the new challenges.”
Who is Tim? It is, of course, the inventor of the World Wide Web – Sir Tim Berners-Lee. If you are still stumped, see exactly how to solve the puzzle step by step.
Click here for the BBC’s solution in full.
9. The FBI Native American Puzzle Answer reads as follows:
This is our hardest quiz so far. It is longer, of course, with more than twice as many words as our last cryptographic challenge. It also features a new set of pictogram symbols based on Native American symbols and motifs for each character of the alphabet. Thanks for participating, and kudos on cracking the code.
10. CIA Puzzle, Partial Solution to the first three panels, as solved by the NSA.