Supposed to be Solved in 35 Years, the Forgotten MIT Crypto Puzzle Was Finally Cracked


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A time capsule protected by a cryptographic puzzle, designed by Ron Rivest in 1999, was supposed to take nearly 35 years to be cracked.

However, WIRED reported April 29, 2019, that nearly only 20 years later, on April 15, 2019, a self-taught Belgian programmer had solved the puzzle to open the time capsule.

Museum of Early Computer History

A celebrated architect, Frank Gehry, in April 1999, received a time capsule that contained the instructions to embed into the object then MIT’s Computer Science Lab. As reported, the time capsule was a museum of early computer history having 50 items contributed by Bill Gates, Tim Berners-Lee and others.

Ron Rivest, the designer of the time capsule, had mentioned that the puzzle wasn’t tricky. It’s just that it would take nearly 35 years to calculate the answer. However, almost 20 years later, on April 15, Bernard Fabrot, a self-taught Belgian programmer, solved the puzzle.

Inside the puzzle were instructions requesting that the solutions be sent to the director of the Laboratory for Computer Science, which, Fabrot told, no more existed. In 2003, the lab was absorbed by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), whose director Daniela Rus had never heard of the puzzle.

The solution to the cryptographic puzzle could be solved after running a squaring operation nearly 80 trillion times in a sequential manner. This meant it could not be done faster by deploying parallel operations or a supercomputer.

Then a mathematical operation was to be run that used the final number and a number mentioned in the instructions of the puzzle. This numerical solution would provide another number that could be translated into a congratulation message, which is to be revealed by Rivest and Fabrot on May 15.

Fabrot told that he stumbled on the puzzle in 2015 and had his computer running at all hours for almost three and a half years. The only occasions that he paused were during vacations or in the event of a power cut.

The Cryptophage project

Fabrot was unaware that he’d solved the puzzle before a team of computer scientists and cryptography experts, Cryptophage, by a margin of 25 days.

The Cryptophage team, led by Intel engineer Simon Peffers, was researching verifiable delay functions as a security mechanism for blockchains. The group considered Rivest’s puzzle to be an excellent way to test their research.

Beginning in early March, they calculated that per their chip’s computing efficiency, they’d have the correct answer by May 10. When the team reached out to MIT, Rivest informed them that Bernard Fabrot had started the calculation almost 42 months back and had already crossed the winning line.

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