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Cicada 3301, the Anonymous Group that Recruits Members Through the Hardest Online Puzzles

Cicada 3301

Secret societies have always intrigued people around the world. And when the Cicada 3301 puzzle popped up on the Internet, people immediately started speculating the face behind these insanely difficult puzzles. In most cases, codebreakers and hackers ultimately get to the bottom of the origin of such Internet mysteries. But that was not the case with Cicada. Nothing could point to the source. Even today, there is no clue as to the people or organization behind these puzzles. The Washington Post called it the “most elaborate and mysterious puzzle of the Internet age.”

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“Cicada 3301” is the name given to a mysterious organization who is known to have posted several puzzles on the Internet over the years. The first puzzle appeared on January 4, 2012, and stated that its purpose was to seek “highly intelligent individuals.”

Cicada 3301
Image credits: AllyCat Entertainment Inc.

On January 4, 2012, a mysterious message appeared on the message boards of sites like Reddit and 4Chan. The message had a hidden puzzle in it and gave solvers a month to crack it. Although the puzzle was open to everyone, it required in-depth knowledge in cryptography, linguistics, number theory, data security, and steganography. So, it was not everyone’s cup of tea.

It was a simple message which, once decoded, led to an image URI. Further decoding led to an URL that ultimately gave out a book code and a Reddit link. 

Cicada message
Image credits: Cicada/Medium

The first puzzle started with the simple message above. It was just an image, and there was supposed to be a hidden message. Few people put two and two together and opened the image in a text editor. To everyone’s surprise, it turned into a Caesar-cipher string that contained semi-readable text. Deciphering the text ultimately led to an image URI. Image URIs are locations of images on the Internet. They are of the format “http://www.google.com/image.png.”

The image URI led to a duck image with another message:

Cicada message
Image credits: Cicada/The Guardian

Some people deduced that the words “out” and “guess” might suggest passing the duck image through another text editor known as “OutGuess.” And sure enough, that worked! The second image deciphered to a URL pointing to a SubReddit and a book code. It also mentioned that going to the SubReddit would lead to the book as well.

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The Reddit link contained Mayan numerals, a string of letters, and two images that were labeled as “Welcome” and “Problems.” Each of these images contained further messages for the solvers and ultimately led to a phone number and a message. 

Welcome message
Image credits: Cicada/Fandom
Problem
Image credits: Cicada/Fandom

The images “Welcome” and “Problems,” when passed through OutGuess, gave out two messages. The message from “Welcome” stated that conversations from the anonymous group would be cryptographically signed going forward. It ended with “Patience is a virtue.”

The message from “Problems” said, “The key has always been right in front of your eyes. This isn’t the quest for the Holy Grail. Stop making it more difficult than it is.”

Both the messages ended with PGP signatures. This is a secure procedure of ensuring the public that the messages are from a confirmed and real source. The PGP signatures give authenticity to encrypted messages.

After much technical code breaking and deciphering, the solvers came upon a text that asked them to call the number 2143909608. This telephone number came to be known as “The Number” in the Cicada community. There’s no point in calling the number now, as it has been deactivated. But at the time, solvers got the following message:

“Very good. You have done well. There are three prime numbers associated with the original final.jpg image. The number “3301” is one of them. You will have to find the other two. Multiply all three of these numbers together and add a .com to find the next step. Good luck. Goodbye.”

Next, the clues led to a website and finally to physical clue locations around the globe. Clues were found in Mexico, South Korea, Spain, Russia, France, and the USA. This suggested that Cicada 3301 is a global organization of some very talented people. 

Messages
Image credits: Medium

The original image had the dimensions 509 x 503, both prime numbers. So solvers multiplied these with 3301, as per the message, and arrived at http://845145127.com. It had an image which, when passed through OutGuess, gave a message to the solvers to check back on January 9, 2012, for the next instructions.

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Finally, on January 9, 2012, the website gave out coordinates to places across the globe. At this very moment, people started realizing that this is not some random puzzle. It’s been posted by some powerful global organization. The co-ordinates led to places across Mexico, South Korea, Spain, Russia, France, and the USA.

Each of these clues had a QR code which, upon scanning, led to more puzzles and required more decryption by the solvers. At last, it led to a hidden message on the Tor Network that asked the puzzle solvers to create a new email address and send it to them.

Finally, after a month, the Cicada 3301 group announced that they have found the individuals they were looking for. Marcus Wanner and Joel Erikkson are two people known to have solved the puzzle.

Last message
Image credits: Cicada/Medium

The above image was posted by the Cicada 3301 team after a month of wild-goose chases in 2012. Two people, Marcus Wanner and Joel Erikkson, came forward saying that they were one of the few people to have solved the entire puzzle. Marcus solved the puzzle along with a group of sleuths and stated that each of them received individual messages with tougher puzzles to solve. Wanner also said that they were asked to provide their opinions on freedom of information, online privacy, and censorship. According to Wanner, the people who answered satisfactorily at this stage were invited for a private meeting. They were given further technical work which Wanner was unable to complete.

On the other hand, although Joel Erikkson solved the puzzle, he was late in his submission, and by that time, the Cicada had already announced that they had found the people they were looking for.

Subsequent puzzles appeared on January 5, 2013, and January 5, 2014. Another clue appeared on January 5, 2016, but this time, it was on Twitter. But even today, no one knows who Cicada is. Some say they are a secret society with the goal to improve the Internet, while others say its a religious cult!

Cicada
Change the exposure on the image, and the cicada is revealed. Image credits: Cicada/The Guardian

The Cicada launched new puzzles, both in 2013 and 2014, stating that their search for intelligent individuals still continues. These new puzzles were similar to the 2012 puzzles and heavily relied on steganography, cryptography, book codes, and data security.

Even today, no authentic and verified organizations or people have come forward and taken credit for the puzzles. Some believe Cicada 3301 to be a secret society on a mission to improve cryptography, anonymity, and privacy on the digital front. Some have even pushed Cicada to the dark side by calling them a religion and a cult. A few people who have claimed to have won the 2012 puzzle, stated that Cicada doesn’t normally look for potential members via Internet puzzles. They did so because they required people with cryptography and data-security skills.

There also have been allegations of Cicada of being a hacker group. They were accused of being part of illegal activities as a hacker group calling themselves “3301.” A hacker group of the same name hacked Planned Parenthood, a global NPO providing reproductive care. But later, the hacker team confirmed that they are in no way associated with the puzzle group Cicada 3301. Even Cicada commented to this with a PGP-signed message and denied any involvement in any illegal activities.

Amidst all the speculations and accusations, the search is still on for the faces behind the Cicada 3301 puzzles.

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