Beyond any shadow of doubt, one of the most mysterious – and fascinating – of all secret groups is that which has become known as Cicada 3301. Their story is a notable one. And an intriguing one, too. I have people ask me about it now and again. In essence, the story behind the group goes like this: between 2012 and 2016 its still-unknown members have posted online a series of highly complicated puzzles – with a challenge for people to try and crack those very same puzzles. As for Cicada 3301’s motivations, speculation has long been rife that they are either a growing body of definitively secret society proportions, or – and rather intriguingly – that they are an ingenious front for an agency of government. Possibly even of the National Security Agency, the former employers of the world’s most infamous whistle-blower, Edward Snowden. So the theory goes, anyone who can crack the puzzle wide open is worthy of being secretly recruited into the mysterious world of code-breaking and ciphers. The controversy began in January 2012. That was when the first Cicada 3301 challenge was posted to the Internet. It began with a decidedly cryptic challenge: “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 you on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few that will make it all the way through. Good luck.”
Cue countless numbers of budding cipher-cracking who took up the enigma-filled challenge. While many have concluded this is nothing more than a highly sophisticated game, one that was intended purely as a form of entertainment, not everyone is quite so sure that’s the case. Indeed, there are those who suggest Cicada 3301 is a downright sinister group, as the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper – which has taken a particular interest in the affair – has noted: “Nobody knows for sure the identity of the group behind the puzzles but speculation about who may be behind it includes the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the hacker group Anonymous, the U.S. Government or just a troll having some fun.” Whatever the answer, I find it all very entertaining and thought-provoking.
In November 2013, the Daily Telegraph newspaper noted: “One long, cautionary diatribe, left anonymously on the website Pastebin, claimed to be from an ex-Cicada member – a non-English military officer recruited to the organization ‘by a superior.’ Cicada, he said, ‘was a Left-Hand Path religion disguised as a progressive scientific organization’ – comprising of ‘military officers, diplomats, and academics who were dissatisfied with the direction of the world.’ Their plan, the writer claimed, was to transform humanity into the Nietzschen Übermensch. ‘This is a dangerous organization,’ he concluded, ‘their ways are nefarious.’ With no other clues, it was also assumed by many to be a recruitment drive by the CIA, MI6 or America’s National Security Agency (NSA), as part of a search for highly talented cryptologists. It wouldn’t have been the first time such tactics had been used.”
Rolling Stone magazine stated that the 2013 version provided a wealth of “extremely complicated riddles,” adding that there was “a cipher based on a book by occultist Aleister Crowley. There was another riddle embedded in a song, an amplified guitar instrumental that, upon spectral analysis, revealed a humming sound at a frequency of 15.4 to 16.1 kilohertz, and an analysis of the mp3 file uncovered a hidden message: ‘Like the instar, tunneling to the surface, we must shed our own circumferences; find the divinity within and emerge.’”
In January 2016, yet another challenge Cicada 3301 surfaced. It read as follows: “Hello. The path lies empty; epiphany seeks the devoted. Liber Primus is the way. Its words are the map, their meaning is the road, and their numbers are the direction. Seek and you will be found. Good luck. 3301.” Kenny Paterson, a crypto-professor based at the UK’s Royal Holloway University, is not of the opinion that Cicada 3301 is merely a publicity stunt, or the work of what are known as Internet trolls. Paterson explains why: “There’s been several such competitions in the past. Google used to post puzzles on billboards beside the highways in Silicon Valley to attract people to come and work for them. A few years ago, our own GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters, which is the U.K.’s equivalent of the National Security Agency] had a set of puzzles for people to solve as a way to recruit people with bright minds. It’s unlikely to be a spoof due to the length they have gone to. They are really sophisticated; they have all kinds of amazing, esoteric references in there to the work of Aleister Crowley, for example, paintings by William Blake, and Maya numerals. It takes a long, long time to set up puzzles like this. It’s not something you can do in your spare time.”
The mystery of Cicada 3301 was summed up by the Washington Post with the following words: “Who’s behind the puzzle is unclear, although many enthusiasts believe it’s a large, well-funded and shadowy organization trying to recruit its membership. At this rate, we may never know.”