Puzzling the Internet: The Mystery of Cicada 3301

Updated on July 14, 2018
Paxash profile image

Darcie is a graduate student who spends her free time writing and learning everything she can about cryptozoology, aliens, and the unusual.

There’s no shortage of mysterious puzzles on the Internet. Most of the time, codebreakers both amateur and professional are able to work out the meaning of the puzzle and trace it back to its origins. But for one puzzle, put out into the online world by a group calling itself Cicada 3301, the mystery has yet to come to a satisfying conclusion.

Source

The Puzzles

On January 4, 2012, an image was posted on 4chan’s /b/ and /x/ boards. The image contained text challenging those who read it to find the message hidden within it. Users were quickly able to find the message by opening the image into a text editor program, and from there the puzzle solvers were led to clue after clue, including physical signs posted in various cities across the world. After about a month, Cicada 3301 announced they had found the people they were looking for.

The organization would publish follow-up puzzles in 2013 and 2014. As far as anyone outside of the organization knows, no one was able to fully complete the 2014 puzzle, which revolves around deciphering the Liber Primus, a “sacred book” distributed by Cicada 3301 supposedly containing the final round of clues. Puzzles published online after 2014 did not contain Cicada 3301’s PGP signature, and thus are not official follow-ups.

The puzzles have a focus on data security, cryptography, and especially steganography, which is when a file is concealed within another file, such as the case with the first clue ever published by the group.

One of the physical clues. This one was located in Warsaw, Poland.
One of the physical clues. This one was located in Warsaw, Poland. | Source

Speculation

Given the mysterious nature of the Cicada 3301 puzzles, it is only natural that people would want to know what kind of organization would be behind them. As of now, no one has figured out for sure who is behind the puzzles or what their actual purpose is, but that uncertainty has led to much speculation.

The only clues anyone has to go on are the puzzles themselves and the PGP-signed messages from Cicada 3301. The first message from the group, which contains their stated purpose of finding “highly intelligent individuals,” along with the fact that when physical clues were used, they appeared at about the same time in so many distant locations, has led most people to speculate that the group must be large and well-funded.

Some speculation has been more specific, with some assuming the puzzles are recruitment tools for a government agency, such as the NSA, CIA, or MI6. Others have guessed that they might be part of a recruitment process for the Freemasons or an unspecified cyber mercenary group.

Other theories are more sinister, with some claiming that the Cicada 3301 puzzles must be attempts to recruit for a cult, or even simply an attempt to make people comfortable with occult ideas, due mostly to certain clues that reference occult writers such as Blavatsky and Crowley.

Still others have suggested that the puzzles are only an ARG, or alternate reality game, and there is no deeper motive. However, this is unlikely, because no individual or group has taken credit for the ARG or attempted to monetize it in any way. The secrecy surrounding what happens with those who have actually solved the puzzles also works against this theory, as there would be no reason to hide the fate of the solvers if this was merely an ARG. There is also the matter of the scope of the puzzles, especially the physical clues. While not impossible, it is highly unlikely that a person or group running an ARG would go to those lengths.

A page from the Liber Primus.
A page from the Liber Primus. | Source

The Claims of Marcus Wanner

Since the end of the 2012 puzzle, a handful of people have come forward claiming to have been recruited by Cicada 3301 and giving details about what the organization expected them to do. The most notable of these was Marcus Wanner, who gave an interview to Rolling Stone in which he detailed his experience.

Wanner claimed to have solved the 2012 puzzle as part of a group, which included his friend Tekk.nolagi, who often goes by Tekk and who has also given interviews about his time working with Cicada 3301. Wanner and Tekk have said that those who solved the puzzle in time were then given an interview in which they were questioned about their opinions on intellectual freedom and censorship, among other things. Both of them evidently gave the answers the group was looking for, as they were then invited along with about 20 other people to a private forum.

The winners of the 2012 puzzle were told that Cicada 3301 was an organization that was made up of multiple different cells known as “broods,” all of which operated independently. The task that was given to Wanner and Tekk’s brood was to create a new software that fit with the group’s ideology as it had been explained to them. The brood then began development on a project they named CAKES, the Cicada Anonymous Key Escrow System, which was intended to protect whistleblowers.

Tekk soon became bored with the project and quit, but Wanner persevered. However, by the end of 2012, he was the only person from the original brood still active on the forum. Wanner made requests to the group to recruit new members and was told that they would, but in March 2013, another 2012 winner named Sage logged in and informed him that they’d been “laid off.” Not much longer after that, he discovered that the private forum had disappeared.

Wanner never found out more information about the mysterious organization and had no idea why his brood was abandoned.

Marcus Wanner
Marcus Wanner | Source

The Further Claims of Tekk.nolagi

Marcus Wanner’s friend Tekk has his own unique claims regarding his time working as part of the 2012 puzzle’s brood. He said in an interview with Michael Grothaus of FastCompany.com that communications from Cicada 3301 implied that they had infiltrated multiple organizations, with one member specifically stating that the group had infiltrated major magazine publisher Condé Nast.

At one point, Tekk wanted to publish a blog post about his experiences within the brood, but was told he should wait because the group had a contact at Wired and preferred him to publish there. He ended up not waiting, and he never found out the extent of Cicada 3301’s involvement with the magazine.

Like everyone else, Tekk doesn’t know what exactly Cicada 3301 is. However, he said that the group’s TOR site was informal and contained numerous spelling and grammar errors, which led him to believe that it was not part of a government agency, and also dismisses the idea that it included security researchers from major companies or universities. Tekk also didn’t subscribe to the theory that it was a cyberterrorist organization.

Source

The Warning

On the anniversary of the first puzzle, an anonymous person posted in the Cicada IRC claiming he had been a member of the group for over a decade before leaving. The poster warned others to stay away from the group, and called it cult-like and “religion disguised as a progressive scientific organization.” This mysterious message became known as “The Warning.”

Needless to say, this message paints an entirely different picture of Cicada 3301 from the stories of Wanner and Tekk. Most disregard this message as a fake, but a small number of people who are invested in knowing the truth behind the organization believe it.

Conclusion

No one outside of Cicada 3301 itself knows the full truth behind the organization. Even those who claim to have been invited to work in a brood don’t know anything about the group besides the task they were specifically given.

Perhaps one day the group will reveal itself. Perhaps some dedicated solvers will crack the code of the Liber Primus and it will contain all the answers the Internet has been searching for. But until then, we’re mostly left in the dark.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      No comments yet.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, turbofuture.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://turbofuture.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)