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On the 4th of January, 2012, a user on 4chan posted this image to the site’s infamous or random board. The anonymous author, who went by the four-digit pseudonym 3301, challenged users to uncover a message hidden within the image. Unbeknownst to those who stumbled across it, someone had just set in motion one of the most elaborate scavengers hunts the internet has ever seen. Within minutes of the image being posted someone discovered that by opening the file using a text editor an appended string of readable text could be found.
The sting contained a cipher that, once deciphered, formed a link to yet another image. At first, this appeared to be a dead-end but using an application known as OutGuess users was able to extract hidden information embedded within the first image. The extracted information lead to a subreddit which in turn contained information about a book. The book along with a code could then be used to uncover a phone number that, when called, played this prerecorded message. By the following day, the initial image had been reposed all over the internet. A growing community of armchair detectives sought to unravel this elaborate puzzle but no one was quite sure what to make off it. What was the puzzle for?
Who was behind it? What happens when you reach the end? Some naturally dismissed it as an elaborate joke while others perceived its complexity as evidence against it being the work of a mere troll. Before long, rumors began to circulate that this could be the work of some secret society or intelligence agency with the intent of recruiting individuals proficient in cryptography, steganography, and other related fields. Of course, it was nothing but a rumor. The two missing numbers mentioned in the recording proved to be the dimensions of the original image. After multiplying the width and height with 3301 and using the product as a web address, users were taken to a website.
The website consisted of a countdown as well as an image of a cicada. When the countdown reached zero, the page was updated with a list of coordinates. The coordinates pointed to locations around the globe. 14 locations in 5 different countries. It was now up to participants living near the specified coordinates to rise from their comfortable armchairs and venture outside.
Those who believed Cicada to be the work of an organization now felt their beliefs had been justified. In their opinion, only some international collective possessed the means and resources
to create a scavenger hunt of this magnitude. This was not the work of your average troll. No, this had to be something else. At each location was a poster with the cicada symbol and a QR code. …on the bike shelter over here. See I got it… I got it right there. You can see the corners, I just kinda ripped it off. The codes linked to an image, the image contained a riddle, the riddle lead to a book, and the book leads to a website. But here, the puzzle took an unexpected turn. Only a select group of first arrivals to this website were accepted into the final stage of the puzzle. The site eventually closed down with the message: “We want the best, not the followers.” The finalists were also warned not to collaborate with others nor to share the details of this private stage of the puzzle. Well, given that we know this, it’s safe to say that not everyone heeded that warning. But those who did presumably advanced through the final stages before reaching the very end of the puzzle. After nearly a month of silence, an image appeared on the subreddit announcing the conclusion of the puzzle and, just like that, the hunt was over.
Cicada had supposedly found the “highly intelligent individuals” they were looking for and whatever happened to them is a bit of a mystery but more on that in a moment. The lack of an explanation was perceived by many as confirmation that the puzzle had been nothing but a wild-goose chase intent on wasting everyone’s time. After all, questions raised by the original image remained unanswered. What was the puzzle for? Who was behind it? What happens when you reach the end? However, as it later turned out, this was only the beginning.
Whoever was behind this intricate game had the foresight to include an authentication code known as a PGP signature along with every clue. This allowed users to verify that an image or message was actually from Cicada as opposed to some impostor seeking to derail or hijack the puzzle. Cicada had repeatedly warned of such “false paths” and insisted that any message lacking a valid PGP signature should promptly be disregarded. That’s why this image, posted exactly a year and a day after the first, provoked such a frenzy. After a year of lackluster imitations, this image finally matched the official PGP signature. Cicada was back and it was time for round two. The second puzzle was not too dissimilar from the first.
The image enclosed a message, the message lead to a book, the book produced a link, and gradually the puzzle unfolded. At one point, a recording titled The Instar Emergence was uncovered.
Another clue leads to a cryptic Twitter account which then leads to an image. The image proved vital to the progression of the puzzle but the inclusion of this runic
alphabet would remain a mystery for quite some time. Much like the first puzzle the second swelled into the physical world when a list coordinates compelled participants to, once again, take to the streets in search of enigmatic posters. This time it was 8 locations in 4 different countries. But eventually, the trail went cold once again. Another select group of first arrivals had been accepted into a final private stage of the puzzle. Unlike the first puzzle, the second did not conclude with an official message from Cicada. The trail merely went cold and Cicada vanished once more leaving us no closer to an explanation. However, this was still not the end. At the beginning of 2014, it was time for round three. Once again the image enclosed a message, the message leads to a book, the book produced a link, and suffice it to say, it was more of the same. Except, this time, the puzzle seemed to revolve around a strange book.
The book was titled Liber Primus, meaning First Book in Latin, and was evidently written by Cicada. The runic alphabet uncovered in 2013 finally made sense as the book was primarily written in runes. Even so, the meaning of the translated pages was cryptic at best. The book consisted of various philosophical and ideological ideas and appeared to be their manifesto.
Many have since compared the strange writings to that of a cult. Nevertheless, the book also comprised a myriad of clues and codes. For example, this page advised participants to seek out a website on the deep web but the site remains undiscovered. Another page leads to a website containing yet another recording titled Interconnectedness.
However, a significant portion of the book has yet to be translated. The runic text on some of the pages appears to be obfuscated by layers of encryption that has yet to be decrypted.
Of the 74 pages featuring runes, only 19 have been successfully translated. As 2015 came and went without the launch of a new puzzle, many came to suspect the Liber Primus had to be completed if Cicada was to return. This was more or less confirmed at the beginning of 2016
when Cicada encouraged a reexamination of the book. More than four years have now gone by with minimal progress and near-complete silence from Cicada.
Questions raised by the original image have gone ignored.
What is the purpose of these puzzles? Who’s behind them? What happens when you reach the end?
When the initial image appeared on 4chan back in 2012 many assumed Cicada 3301 to be an alternate reality game designed by a corporation to promote a new service or product. For example, Microsoft developed an elaborate ARG back in 2001 to promote the film Artificial Intelligence and a similar viral marketing campaign was used to promote the release of Halo 2.
But the release of subsequent puzzles and the complete lack of commercialization has more or less eliminated that possibility. If we choose to believe some of the leaked information from the private end-stage of each puzzle than we do gain some insight into who this group might be. For example, at the end of the first puzzle, finalists supposedly received this email.
In it, Cicada describes itself as an international group who believe that privacy is an inalienable right.
The aim of each puzzle is to recruit like-minded individuals in an effort to develop privacy-conscious solutions. The email then concludes with three questions. The PGP signature, which would have confirmed the authenticity of the email, was conveniently removed by the leaker. If a version with a valid signature does exist online I was unable to find it. But regardless of its legitimacy, I find this question a bit odd. It reads: “Do you believe that information should be free?” Assuming the expected answer is yes then the very first sentence… “DO NOT SHARE THIS INFORMATION!” …seems a bit hypocritical.
While the idea of a secret society recruiting individuals by means of elaborate cryptographic puzzles may seem a bit absurd or even conspiratorial, it’s not entirely unfounded. Corporations and governments alike have employed similar recruitment techniques since at least the second World War. In 2013, the British intelligence agency GCHQ launched a recruitment program known as “Can You Find It?”. Participants had to decrypt a number of cryptograms hidden across the internet and those who managed to solve the entire puzzle were offered a prize or a position at the agency. Google did something similar with enigmatic billboards back in 2004 and the US Navy launched a near-identical project in 2014. Okay, but then, what about the recruits? Why have we not heard from these chosen few? Well, we have. It’s just that separating a legitimate finalist from an impostor is virtually impossible.
In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, two alleged winners of the first puzzle chronicled the events beyond the final stage. After receiving an email from Cicada they were taken to a forum on the dark web. Here, they could communicate with some twenty some odd recruits as well as a handful of established members of Cicada. They were told that Cicada 3301 had been founded by a group of friends who shared common ideas about security, privacy, and censorship. The goal was to work as a collective to develop software applications in line with that ideology. As friends recruited friends, this secret society quickly expanded into a decentralized international organization. The recruits were then tasked with developing software that fit the ideology of the group and members of Cicada would oversee their progress. But without the allure of a puzzle to be solved, the recruits quickly lost interest.
By the end of 2012, all but one had left and a few months later the site was gone. They never heard from Cicada again. One of the two winners, named Marcus Wanner, later elaborated further in a video by YouTuber Nox Populi. Furthermore, Nox Populi himself claims to be a winner of the second puzzle so I reached out to him and this is some of what he had to say. After completing the final stages of the second puzzle Nox Populi received an invitation to join Cicada 3301. However, he was not invited to a website but was instead merely told to be patient.
Then, around May of 2013, all communication with Cicada abruptly ceased. This was around the same time as when the website dedicated to the winners of the first puzzle was suddenly taken down. Nox Populi later contacted other winners of the second puzzle to compare notes and their experiences were identical. In his own words: “All the stories were the same, we were invited to join 3301, then something happened and silence followed a request for patience.” Nox Populi suppose that roughly five others completed the second puzzle in contrast to
the twenty-odd winners of the first.
In regards to who or what Cicada is, Nox Populi believes they could be a remnant of the cypherpunk movement of the late 80s and 90s. Essentially a small group of activists advocating widespread use of strong cryptography and privacy-enhancing technologies but he admits that there is no way to know for certain. If you want a far more comprehensive walkthrough of these puzzles as opposed to my brief overview, Nox Populi has produced a number of videos on his channel which I highly recommend. While these accounts cannot be verified they do make for a very compelling argument as to what Cicada is. A group of anonymous developers seeking to develop privacy-conscious applications by recruiting talented individuals via cryptographic puzzles. Sure, it is not nearly as exciting as a shadow government seeking world domination or any of the more fantastical theories but it is certainly more plausible. You have to keep in mind that no part of these puzzles would have required more than one person. The posters are often pointed to as evidence that this must be the work of some international organization but I beg to differ. I mean, right now, I could use any number of services to hire random persons around the globe to install posters for me.
Although, given that no poster was located more than an hour away from an airport leads me to believe that one or multiple persons actually traveled to these locations.
I mean, some of the posters were found within walking distance of an international airport. The fact is that anyone with a disposable income and enough time on their hands would be able to create the illusion of a vast secret network spanning the globe. Not saying that is the case with Cicada 3301 but it is nonetheless a possibility that cannot be discounted.
With all of that being said, I personally think a loose-knit group of privacy-minded hobby-cryptographers to be the most plausible explanation. Cicada made their last public statement in April of 2017, merely warning against disinformation, but the current status of the third puzzle and the possibility of a fourth remains clouded in mystery.