Cicada 3301: Behind The Internet's Most Mysterious Cryptographic Puzzles

Image: YouTube

On January 5th 2012 a mysterious message appeared on 4chan's /x/ board.

Hello. We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test.

There is a message hidden in this image. Find it, and it will lead on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few that will make it all the way through.

Good luck.

3301.

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This seemingly simple message started a modern day digital treasure hunt, involving a series of puzzles posted online for would-be crackers to decode -- each harder than the last. It also gave birth to a storm of questions, paranoia and conspiracy theories that have grown with every passing year.

Welcome to the world of Cicada 3301.

Puzzles Around The World

It's no exaggeration that the group was looking for highly intelligent individuals. The first couple of puzzles were a mere taste test of what was to come.

A basic knowledge of cryptography simply wasn't going to cut it.

When opened in a text editor, the first image revealed the following:

VS CLAVDIVS CAESAR says "lxxt> 33m2mqkyv2gsq3q = w] O2ntk.

Even casual puzzle lovers could realise that this was a basic Caesar cipher -- which simply involves shifting the alphabet over a few characters and matching up the letters.

Once cracked, the text unveiled a URL that led to this image:

From there, a stenography (concealing a file, message, image, or video within another file) program called Outguess could be used to derive another message -- leading to more puzzles that involved the likes of book codes, medieval Welsh poems, obscure quotes, encrypted emails and even a phone message, which you can listen to below.

Steganography, number theory, philosophy, mathematics, classical music and obscure existential literature have all been included in 3301 puzzles. In fact, one included a poem written steampunk writer William Gibson, which was only ever published on a 3.5 floppy disk.

The slightly spooky telephone message wouldn't be the last time that the game bled into the real world.

Cicada flyers with QR codes popped up across several continents and puzzlers had to work out the coordinates to find them. There was even one in Sydney.

Unsurprisingly, code crackers were banding together in the hopes of solving the puzzles -- one of the most notorious known as #decipher.

Cooperation was eventually quelled when 3301 directed solvers to the deep web. The final puzzle required visiting a website through Tor -- a web browser that is favoured by those seeking online anonymity.

Alleged winners have since reported that the website instructed them to create a new email address. They were then contacted by the group with individual RSA puzzles. Once they solved that, their final challenge was a MIDI puzzle that had to be solved with a substitution cipher -- one tone represented a letter.

What Happened Then?

People weren't entirely sure what happened next for a long time. Nobody was talking and those who were late to the game found the Tor website to simply state, "We want the best, not the followers."

Eventually, some alleged solvers of the 2012 puzzle began to come forward. One of the most notable is Marcus Wanner, who was a 15 year old home-schooled kid, and one of the members of #decipher.

He has stated that on 28th February 2012 he received an email that led him to a deep web forum with other successful puzzle solvers, or recruits.

He wasn't sure what he was getting himself into -- he still had no idea what 3301 actually was. A government agency? Cyberterrorists? A cult? Google?

And what were their intentions? What were they going to find now that they had reached the end of their path?

Paranoia was understandably high. Even during the puzzle solving process it had been difficult to trust anyone. Fake puzzles and false information was already being spread during this time to throw others off the true path.

Wanner claims that he and the other recruits demanded to know who 3301 were, and the answer was far simpler than they expected -- a group of like-minded individuals who believed in freedom of information and individual privacy.

They claimed to have no affiliation with the government, military or a specific organisation.

Wanner says that 3301 was split into decentralised cells, known as broods, and that that each one had no knowledge of any of the others. Their cell, subbed Brood b.0h, were instructed to develop software that aligned with 3301's ideology.

This resulted in an idea that would protect whistleblowers, after being inspired by Chelsea Manning, a military intelligence analyst who disclosed almost 750,000 military and diplomatic documents to Wikileaks.

Known as the Cicada Anonymous Key Escrow System (CAKES), the software would automatically publish sensitive information online if a whistle blower was out of action for a designated period time, whether that be because of incarceration or death.

The software never did come to fruition though. Supposed members of 3301 would comment on the group's progress, but by the end of the year work on the project had all but dried up.

In fact, it seems that the 2012 winners were abandoned. Wanner reported never having any contact with the 2013 wave of puzzle solvers and that the deep web site he had been logging onto to collaborate on CAKES, eventually disappeared.

Image: Business Insider

Who Is Cicada 3301?

To this day, we still don't know.

No information written on the subject can be trusted or verified. Even a leaked email from one of the 2012 winners doesn't reveal much, other than that 3301 is an international group who believe in privacy for the individual, opression must end and that censorship should be eradicated.

The only thing we really have to go on is the group's PGP signature -- which they use for all of their messages. With fake puzzles and clues being thrown around to throw people off the scent, or to simply troll, this is the best way to verify when something is actually from 3301.

But that still doesn't tell us much.

Wanner has, however, revealed the supposed etymology behind the name. 3301 was chosen because it is a compelling prime number -- a twin prime number both forward and backwards.

As for the cicada -- this was allegedly inspired by periodical cicadas, who only appear every 13 or 17 years. Again with the prime numbers.

Unsurprisingly, in the few short years since it has been in the public eye, 3301 has developed its own mythology and a plethora of conspiracy theories, including claims that they're a cult.

This theory has been fuelled by the particular texts and quotations the group has used in their puzzles, such as Aleister Crowley, runes, Buddhism and grail myth.

This belief has been further encouraged by an anonymous poster in a 3301 dedicated IRC channel, who appeared on the first anniversary of the original puzzle appearing.

Now known as The Warning by 3301 fanatics, the post was written by someone who claimed to have been part of 3301 for over a decade, after being vetted in person, and warned people to stay away.

They also claimed that the group was a "religion disguised as a progressive scientific organization."

What gave people pause was that the post was made mere hours before something familiar appeared on 4chan:

Of course, this could be nothing but a coincidence. After all, it made perfect sense for the 2013 puzzle to kick off on the same date as its predecessor.

A group that is dedicated to privacy and cryptography may never be truly discovered. But that doesn't mean you can't try. In the very least, you can get one step closer by having a crack at their 2017 puzzle. Maybe you'll be the one to crack the code.