We live in the age of the Internet. Virtually every aspect of our lives is tied in some shape or form to cyberspace, and the net has become a sprawling, lawless cyber jungle. And just like a jungle, there are things that move in the shadows and stalk about the wilderness here in the ether. In some cases it’s hard to know if what is prowling out there in the dark is harmless, a predator, a mere illusion caused by the play of light on the leaves, or something else. It is from this cyber wilderness that creeps one of the weirdest unsolved technological mysteries of the modern age; a puzzle put forth from some mysterious cabal whose agenda and identity remain unknown to this day, and which has spiraled into perhaps the most legendary and baffling conundrums of the Internet.
On January 5, 2012, a cryptic message in simple white text on a black background mysteriously appeared on the Internet stating:
Hello. We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test. There is a message hidden in the image. Find it, and it will lead you on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few who will make it all the way through. Good luck.
The message was signed “3301,” and was accompanied by cicada imagery and an image in which the first clue was hidden. Thus started the weird, sometimes creepy story of what would prove to be one of the most elaborate and complex puzzles ever devised by man. What would come to be known as the Cicada 3301 puzzle is massively complex, involving a staggering array of elements including references to poetry, artwork, music, speculative fiction, obscure 18th century literary works, Mayan calendars, philosophy, mathematics, cryptography, numerology, technology, data security, steganography, and ancient manuscripts, among others. It spans continents, requires enormous reserves of willpower, knowledge, and technical skill, and has often been referred to as "the most elaborate and mysterious puzzle of the internet age.”
The puzzles have a vast scope, and transcend mere cyberspace, using a wide variety of media such as the telephone, original music, pages of unpublished, obscure books, printed pages posted in various locations, digital images, downloadable CDs, and others, all of which use various encryption and encoding techniques to cleverly hide data. The puzzles cannot be solved from a computer, often requiring the player to travel to different destinations around the world in order to get the next clue or riddle, often in the form of a QR code that has been physically plastered to a telephone pole, lamppost, or even a mailbox. These locations are as far flung as various locations within the United States, France, Spain, Russia, Japan, Poland, and South Korea. Each and every riddle and clue is time stamped, must be done in a specific order, and it is impossible to backtrack or undo any mistakes. As the player progresses, the puzzle gets increasingly more complex and personalized to the individual, requiring them to dig deep into their experience and knowledge.
So far there have been three such puzzles. The original puzzle lasted for one month, followed by another in January 5, 2013, and yet another on January 5, 2014, each one spaced exactly one year apart, although oddly no new round was released on January 5, 2015. All of puzzles for each year are inextricably linked, and require an intimate understanding of the previous year’s puzzle in order to move on to the next round. They each open with an enigmatic message to potential players that instils curiosity and whets the appetite for what is to come. For instance the puzzle for 2014 started with:
Hello. Epiphany is upon you. Your pilgrimage has begun. Enlightenment awaits. Good luck. 3301.
As amazingly difficult and elaborately sophisticated as the Cicada 3301 puzzles are, the biggest mystery surrounding them is that no one knows who is responsible for creating them or why. Besides the cryptic stated original purpose of finding “highly intelligent individuals,” no one has any idea of what the ultimate purpose or goal of the puzzles is. The only thing that is clear is that the designs of the puzzles are undeniably ingenious, incredibly sophisticated, and thought to be nearly impossible to solve. It is also relatively clear that whatever enigmatic organization is releasing the puzzles is very well funded to be able to place clues in such disparate locations around the world, often simultaneously.
This has led to an immense amount of speculation on what sort of mysterious organization is behind Cicada 3301 and what their goals are. The most common theory is that it is a recruitment tool for some intelligence agency such as the NSA, CIA, MI6, or some even more secretive, shadowy omnipresent agency, yet none of these organizations have ever claimed responsibility for the puzzles. It has also been said that Cicada 3301 could be the doing of a corporation, a bank working on some sort of cryptocurrency, a secret society dedicated to improving privacy and cryptography, or even a cabal of hackers up to some nefarious worldwide plot. Other theories support the idea that Cicada 3301 is a front for some terrorist organization, and some of the more far out, fringe ideas point the finger at aliens. In all cases, there is no evidence at all to support any one of these ideas over another. It could be Jimmy Hoffa and Elvis Presley putting the puzzles out from Atlantis for all anyone knows. It is a total mystery as to how many people are involved, where they are based, or what they want. No one has any clue, and the ones behind Cicada 3301 have responded to these sorts of allegations and speculation only once, to deny that they were engaged in any illegal activities. Other than that, there is complete silence.
Just as mysterious as the identity of Cicada 3301 and their motives is the question of what happens when someone actually successfully solves the puzzles. Thousands of people have taken a crack at the the puzzles, but although many have claimed to have solved them, there has been no forthcoming announcement from the organization to this end, and it is unclear just how many people have actually really passed, or what becomes of them when they do. There was a rumor that some of the people who completed the puzzles were administered a personality test by email, after which they were admitted into the mysterious group, but little is known of what happens after that and no one who has reportedly been allowed into the inner sanctum seems to be willing to talk.
One of the few people who is known to have allegedly solved the puzzle, a security researcher named Joel Eriksson, helped to shed a little light on the whole process. Eriksson at first came across Cicada 3301 by accident after the very first image was posted in 2012. He originally treated it as sort of a brainteaser and a challenge to work on in his spare time, but he soon was drawn into it and learned just how incredibly complex it was, and how deep the rabbit hole went. At first, Eriksson used his considerable talents with steganography and cryptography, as well as various steganography and decryption programs, to start uncovering the clues and decode the cyphers hidden in various images and texts online, but his mission to solve it would lead him out into the real world as well. Part of the process involved calling a phone number in Texas, which had been extracted through riddles hidden within images that were then deciphered into the number’s digits, in order to get a voicemail holding the next clue. Additionally, there were in the end a total of 14 GPS locations revealed through various riddles and encrypted codes for various countries around the world, which invariably pinpointed physical posters with the image of a cicada and a QR code that would lead to the next riddle or clue. Due to the geological constraints, Eriksson was not able to journey to every one of these physical locations himself, but rather relied on others who were in those countries.
In the end, Eriksson passed all of the hurdles and solved all of the increasingly mind bogglingly complex riddles until he was directed back into the Internet, into the deepest layer of cyberspace, known as the dark net. In the end, he found himself on the cusp of entering further into the mystery than anyone else known, at a final address on the anonymous TOR network, but he was disappointed in what he found there. Instead of a final answer to the mystery, there was a message proclaiming that the organization was not accepting anyone else, as it appeared they were disappointed that too many people had been collaborating and working together to solve the puzzle rather than solving it on their own, as was intended. Although in Eriksson’s case he had indeed solved it by himself, it was by that time already too late. Instead of the door into what lay beyond the mystery opening, it had been frustratingly slammed in his face.
Eriksson would go on to show a deep fascination with and admiration of the staggering attention to detail on display in the puzzles, and made the observation that individuality appeared to be a highly desirable quality for the Cicada 3301 cabal. In an interview by Michael Grothaus for Fast Company magazine, Eriksson also offered his own insight into who he felt was behind Cicada 3301. He did not feel it was any sort of governmental agency, and said:
It is most likely an underground organization, not related to any government or intelligence agency. Based on the references in their challenges—the Agrippa poem by William Gibson, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, The Book of The Law by Aleister Crowley—and their constant references to prime numbers and the like, they are likely intellectual, anti-establishment, ideologically driven and they seem to be valuing logical/analytical thinking highly. They seem to share a lot of ideology with the cryptoanarchy movement, and old-school hackers.
As to how large the organization might be, Eriksson has conceded that they must be very well-prepared and organized, but that it is not necessarily a big group of people. He told Fast Company:
It really only takes one dedicated person to plan it all, but if I had to guess I would say it's probably three to five with one of them being the main driving force. They probably spend about one to two months on setting everything up before each year's puzzle. I think it's possible to set up similar challenges in a much shorter amount of time as well, but not with as great attention to detail as Cicada 3301.
While Eriksson was unable to pass through the final stage, there most certainly must be those who have. What happens then? What lies at the end of this bizarre rabbit hole? The answer to this question is murky, as the problem is that whoever they are have never come forward to elaborate. The closest we can get to an understanding of what one might expect if they were to get even farther than Eriksson is the testimony of another person who allegedly genuinely made it all the way through to the final stage and proceeded to push into the secrets that were buried beyond, also given in an interview with Fast Company's Michael Grothaus. In this case, the player was a 16 year-old teenager who goes by the online handle, Tekknolagi. Interestingly, in this case the puzzle was passed by doing the very thing that Cicada 3301 had warned against, with Tekknolagi collaborating online with a group of 12 others, mostly anonymous to each other, to help each other solve the myriad riddles and share information.
When Tekknolagi finally made it to the last step, even though he had not completed the puzzle on his own, he was not shut out, as had been done to Eriksson. What he found instead was a message of congratulations, along with instructions to enter a public address from a free email service, after which he was told further information would be forthcoming. The information that came was more clues and riddles, a final test perhaps, which Tekknolagi allegedly passed with flying colors and was then given a TOR URL, username and a password with which he could move past the curtain and deeper into the TOR site to a place few others had ever ventured.
What Tekknolagi reportedly found there surprised him. Instead of being formally ushered into some shadowy organization, there was a kind of forum board that consisted of a chat room that had around 20 members, a private messaging service, and a notice board. On the notice board were various topics concerning current projects of the group. And what were those projects? Tekknolagi claimed that they were mostly concerned with cryptography, encryption, further improving privacy and anonymity, and creating new types of open source software. This seemed on the surface fairly benign, but Tekknolagi warned that he found some of the online chats on the site to hint at something more sinister, claiming that they seemed to show a particular interest in infiltrating various private and public organizations, one in particular being mentioned as the magazine publishing company, Conde Nast, which owns Wired magazine. Although there was never any indication of any sort of cyberterrorism or creation of viruses, it nevertheless was a bit disconcerting. In the end, although he did not get the impression that the Cicada 3301 group was particularly evil, he did find everything a bit eerie and unnerving, and thought them to be similar to other mysterious, highly secretive groups like the Freemasons.
There were other odd details that became clear as he spent time in this inner sanctum. Although the organization was clearly run by brilliant minds, the communications between members seemed very loose and formal, with grammar and spelling mistakes peppered throughout. These kinds of details made Tekknolagi suspect that it was not some government agency like the NSA or CIA, nor did he think that it was some sort of security company. He also eschewed the idea that these were just a ragtag group of hackers messing around, as everything was too meticulously planned and sophisticated. When all was said and done, he was just as baffled as to who they were as he had been when he set out on his quest to join them. The only thing that had become clear was that Cicada 3301 was obviously well-funded, well-organized, well-connected, and with many resources at their disposal. When pressed for who he ultimately thought was behind Cicada 3301, the now 18-year old Tekknolagi was very cryptic, telling interviewer Michael Grothaus:
I don’t know and I don’t know. That’s the truth. I think that’s the only thing that I can truthfully say.
After spending some time frequenting the Cicada 3301 TOR site, some of the members began to stop showing up and Tekknolagi himself became bored with it all, deciding to stop logging on. Sometime later, the whole board allegedly suddenly disappeared off the grid to become hidden again, having still not divulged all of its mysteries and secrets. Of course the whole account cannot be corroborated in any way, so it is impossible to know how much veracity it holds, but this seems to be the legacy of this secret group, to remain inscrutable even to those who manage to penetrate its ranks, and Cicada 3301 still remains as just mysterious and enigmatic as it has ever been.
Although there was no new puzzle released in 2015, and no word on what Cicada 3301’s next plan is, or indeed if the group even still exists, there is still a chance that they may make an appearance in the future. Do you think you have what it takes to solve the puzzle? According to Eriksson, it requires a high level of logical and analytical skill, a solid knowledge of mathematics, especially prime numbers, cartography, and steganography, as well as a deep, meticulous understanding of all of the previous puzzles. He also recommends that any would-be sleuth solve all of the steps of the puzzle by themselves, without outside help, collaboration, or relying on any kind of write-up or cheat sheet.
As to whether we will ever know who is orchestrating the group, Eriksson also had some thoughts on that, saying that he did not think the ones pulling the strings would ever reveal themselves, even to a winner. In his opinion, it was more likely that a winner would only be spoken to indirectly through anonymous communication, and would only be given the barest need-to-know information, such as what was expected from them within the group and what their general ideology was. Other than that, he thinks it is likely the ringleaders would keep their identities and ultimate goals murky and hidden.
Who is behind Cicada 3301? What do they want? What is their ultimate goal, and is it benign or malevolent? When will they come forth with a new puzzle for the next batch of hopefuls and what will happen to those that actually succeed? What was the ultimate outcome of the three puzzles released so far? Even now, nobody has any answers to any of these questions, and it looks like we will likely never know for sure. Whoever Cicada 3301 are, they remain hidden out in the far corners of that vast wilderness of cyberspace, in the very deepest depths of the dark net. They could be anyone; the person next to you on the elevator, the one walking past you on the street, even the one sitting next to you at work. They could be friend, foe, or both; our saviors or our destructors. Cicada 3301 has become almost legendary, and is certainly one of the most baffling and eerie mysteries of this modern internet age we live in.