Cicada 3301 – Greatest Internet Mystery

Cicada 3301

January 2012. This was before we found out that the government was tracking pretty much every transfer of data that took place.  But there were suspicions.  It was common on internet forums like 4chan and social media sites like Reddit for individuals to be talking about ways to create stronger encryption, stronger cryptography, so that they could maintain absolute anonymity and privacy in the face of a growing appetite for people’s personal information. Mostly these were amateur hackers themselves.  But that community was about to get a push into the next level with what would come to be known as Cicada 3301, a mysterious online group with an unclear agenda.

The Mystery of Cicada 3301

On January 3rd, 2012, an image was posted to the 4chan image board, the site’s ‘random’ board, allowing any and all images.  Containing only white text on a black background, it read, in part, “We are looking for highly intelligent individuals.  To find them, we have devised a test.  There is a message hidden in this image”. If you could follow the clues you would find out who these mystery people were soon enough.  It was cryptically signed “3301”.

Cicada 3301 original message
Cicada 3301 message

When this image was viewed through a text editor, a cypher was visible. After deciphering, it appeared to be a link which in turn led to a decoy image.  All of this was starting to seem strange to those standing on the side of the internet superhighway.  Many assumed it was just a prank.  But hackers and code breakers were intent on figuring it out. 

Cicada 3301 decoy image

The original image had a second, more hidden message which led to a subreddit on Reddit.com. Containing exclusively coded materials, which lead to a book, “The Mabinogion”.  The Mabinogion is the earliest known collection of British literature, mostly containing early Celtic mythology and folklore.  

The Mabinogion (Oxford World’s Classics)

A code found within the book led to a phone number which had a pre-recorded message which said, in part:

“Very Good. You have done well. There are three prime numbers associated with the original final.jpg image.  3301 is one of them.” 

If you could figure out the other two numbers, multiply all three together, and then put “.com” at the end, you would be led to a website. 

People speculated it was some elaborate marketing campaign by a major corporation. But there was never any media tie-in or monetization. Secret societies and intelligence agencies were candidates as well, but nobody had a real idea.  

The numbers were determined, and the new website displayed a countdown clock with an image of a cicada.  Once the clock hit zero it displayed a list of 14 coordinates with the message “Find our symbol at the location nearest you”.  These 14 locations were scattered across the globe in five different countries: Australia, South Korea, France, Poland, and the United States.  There was a poster at each location with a scannable QR code.

Cicada 3301 Poster

The puzzle was no longer an online-only puzzle. You needed to go out into the world and find these posters.  No more armchair investigating. The poster linked to an image, which contained a riddle, which led to a book, which led to a website.  The website could only be accessed via the dark web, and only the first of those who made it to the website were accepted. It then changed, displaying the message “We want the best, not the followers”.  Finalists were warned “not to collaborate”.  

The Aftermath – Liber Primus

One month after this, an image was posted to the subreddit on Reddit.com claiming that Cicada 3301 had found the highly intelligent individuals they were looking for, but that there would be opportunities in the future.  Then, silence.  Participants felt like they were being tricked.  Some fell back into the initial belief that it was all an elaborate hoax.

With no purported winners breaking their silence, many assumed they did not really exist.  How could one, especially a hacker or cryptologist, with all the tools to remain anonymous, resist the temptation to reveal to the world “they picked me”?  But no one took credit, and no one came forward.  

Cicada

Exactly one year and one day after the first image a second image was posted.  The set-up was largely similar to the first, with each puzzle leading to the next.  There was one strange clue.  It was a key, which allowed progress on the current puzzle, but it included a unique runic alphabet that did not make sense.

The puzzle went on, including different types of clues including original music recordings. Eventually the finalists were selected, and everyone else was told to go home.  This time there was no official announcement that a finalist was chosen.  

Around this time is when Edward Snowden leaked information that the U.S. government, in cooperation with U.S. companies, was gathering vast amounts of personal data without permission.  It would seem Cicada 3301 was justified in their beliefs.  

Liber Primus

After another year of silence the third, and what would be the final puzzle started the same as the first two.  Unique but similar to the previous puzzles, this would include more original music and would lead to a book, but not a book that already existed.  No, this was the “Liber Primus” (First Book in Latin), and was produced by Cicada 3301 itself

Liber Primus

More interesting than that, the 60 page book was written in the runic alphabet that was released a year prior.  It was not simple to decode, and to this day only portions of the book have been decoded.  What has been translated often resembles the teachings of the occult, but an actual meaning or purpose is unclear.  The book was the last clue ever released by Cicada 3301.  

Maybe one day the organization’s purpose will be uncovered.  Many think the Liber Primus to be the end of the puzzle, and that all remaining questions will be answered there.  Cicada 3301 making their last official transmission in April 2017 stating :

“Beware false paths.”

Cryptography: The Science of Secret Writing

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