If you like puzzles do I have a tale for you. If you like mysteries that are taking place here and now – do I have a tale for you. To solve it you have to master many knowledge bases, travel the world or have connections around the world, and work fairly quickly because there is a time limit. What do you get if you get to the very end and solve all the puzzles? No one has said. Who is putting out these complicated puzzles? No one is telling. This is the tale of Cicada 3301 something I’ve been watching from the start…
It all started in on the 4th of January 2012 when images of a cicada started showing up on the internet along with along with an invitation to solve the puzzle because the posters were ‘looking for intelligent people.’ What we know about all the puzzles up to a point on that year mostly comes from Joel Eriksson a crypto-security researcher and developer in Sweden who loves puzzles. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, for Joel he got into the game late. He solved them all until he hit a wall and boy did it take him down a rabbit hole of twists and turns.
First off to solve the puzzles he solved you had to know about
- steganography (the practice of concealing messages or information within other non-secret text or data)
- Ancient Mayan numbers and their theories of numerology
- Speculative fiction market and specific stories there
- cyberpunk culture
That’s just to name a few topics in the first few puzzles. Little did he know when he started that this message encoded in the image would led him to more puzzles that moved out into the real world. To solve the self-referencing puzzles he’d have to receive voice mails from a synthetic voice, see images of fliers posted on telephone poles in Spain, Russia, USA, France, Japan, and Poland, enter the dark web (uncharted area of the internet), and find rare books.
That image led to the next puzzle which led to the one and so on. Each step increased in difficulty. That cicada image with the hidden message led to a Reddit board that led to Mayan numbers using Mayan numerology to get the cipher that led to an obscure book to decrypt which went to a phone number in Texas that gave the url of another cicada photo that had GPS coordinates for the fliers around the world on telephone poles that had the cicada image and QR codes, that when solved led to a poem, that led to a TOR site and there he hit a wall. Cicada 3301 had stopped because the game was to be played as Joel did by individuals but it seems groups has collaborated to get past this portal and that’s not what the mysterious sponsor wanted.
Okay what did Joel glean about the makers from his hours of lonely work on these puzzles. Not much, just hunches. He doesn’t think it is an intelligence agency recruiting method. He suspects that it is a small underground, intellectual, anti-establishment, analytical think tank of sorts with some unknown goal.
Well turns out that was just the first year of the Cicada 3301 trials. There were puzzles in 2013, 2014 and this year 2016 all posted in January on the 4th or 5th. The later introductory posts changed the wording a bit from looking for ‘intelligent individuals’ the first year to ‘highly intelligent individuals’ the follow years. Why skip 2015? They now have a twitter handle you can follow (they follow no one) 1231507051321 if you want to see what they are releasing.
Since then there have been no solvers of the later puzzles that talked openly as Joel did. But this being on the internet there are anonymous ‘winners’ who say some things that fit the pattern Joel gave us. The puzzles get more complicated and back reference to unused parts of previous puzzles to move forward to the next even more intricate puzzle. Seems if you get past the Tor wall Joel encountered on the dark web they won a personality test. Only those that meet the undisclosed criteria go on. If any one has they haven’t whispered on the internet as to what’s beyond that.
So who or what is Cicada 3301? There are a few ideas tossed out and once someone who said they used to belong. They are adamant that they are NOT a criminal organization. When some crimes used their name they quickly denounced the crime and certified it was the real Cicada 3301 by using their GnuPG private key (free privacy guard software by Symantec don’t ask me how it works it just verifies the sender is the same anon send as before, through what’s IT magic to me)
Some ideas are more plausible the others.
- It’s a PR ploy – if so they still haven’t announced what it is while spending a large amount of time and effort to make a detailed world wide puzzle. Also you’d have to wonder what is the target market of this – it’s all pretty elusive to the mainstream market.
- It’s internet trolls – wow again expense, had to get out of Mom’s basement to go post flyers all over the Northern Hemisphere (note none in the Southern) and to what point no one has gotten to know about how you duped everyone.
- It’s government intelligence or military intelligence – Okay maybe but participants don’t seem to think it’s government. They had trouble hacking an iPhone how would they master Tor and the dark web? The US Navy copied the idea in a recruitment tool but they were up front that was what it was.
- It’s Anonymous – Anonymous gets members without the effort. Second they aren’t organized to do years long planning efforts it’s a group sourced effort. Unless a subgroup was needing a specific talent I’d say they groom who walks in the door.
- It’s the Freemasons – again why? Just go to a meeting and they could recruit ‘intelligent people’ or ‘highly intelligent people’ from there. Then again if there’s shadow and intrigue their name will come up along with the next group…
- It’s the Illuminati – okay IF there’s an Illuminati maybe… but **shrugs**
- It’s aliens or time travelers – whoa, we are getting way down the rabbit hole here.
- It’s a cult – Well maybe. There would be money and the conviction to work on such detailed work. But there’s no stated philosophy really that you see in religions. So I’d rule out a religious cult.
- It’s a secret cyber bank – I’ll admit this one I don’t quite get. I know bitcoin is out there and all but since nothing I read has any puzzle asking for money or currency of any value other than time and effort I just don’t see it.
- It’s cyber mercenaries recruiting – Hmmm, that would fit the vibe Joel got. It would explain the multi-city aspect and high interest in various forms of cyber decoding and security. Okay this one is viable for me.
Okay so what did the ‘former’ member claim? Well first he noted that English wasn’t his first language. Then he went on to claim that it’s a group of individuals who share the belief that tyranny, censorship, and oppression of any kind must end and that privacy is an inalienable right. They recruited from officers in various world military and governments as well as other powerful officials. Then they reached out to like minds with the Cicada 3301 puzzles. It has a military like structures with compartmentalization so that if one group is compromised the whole organization doesn’t fall. Basically a secret society with the goal of improving cryptography, privacy, and anonymity to advert suppression. But he said it actually went further into a cult like belief shown in their references to prime numbers and Liber Primus (a book of encrypted runes).
From here former member was hard to follow but here’s what I gleaned from his tale. The group believes not in an eternal God in the manner of traditional religions but rather in God as each person has in them. Yet they don’t see the soul as being in a person but rather the receiver for the soul is there. I pictured it like we are all little soul radios tuned to a specific soul frequency and from out there (whatever and wherever that is) we pick up and play our soul. But just like a radio if you dismembered a radio you’d never find the little musicians in there playing the tunes – if you dismembered a body you’d never find the soul. One a receiver dies then some how another one tuned to that soul frequency is made and knowledge goes on. Any way it was when he was getting into this stuff that former member quit because it was against his Christian beliefs.
Now who is it? I don’t know but I think the cyber mercenaries or some small radical group wanting improve computer security for some reason is the right track.
I’m not smart enough nor inclined to fret over the puzzles. Heck I get impatient and bored with Sudoku and Scrabble. So instead I watch. There have been various tv shows using this concept as part of their plot. It shows up on Elementary now and again when dealing with cyber people. Just what’s at the end of the rabbit hole? I don’t know. I love going down rabbit holes but when the light gets too dim I stop. It got pretty dim here and some tunnels went off in complete darkness. But hey, the world needs mysteries that challenge you and this one. It might stay a mystery or maybe some day we’ll know if my guess is close to what Cicada 3301 is really doing.