Puzzling the Internet: The Mystery of Cicada 3301
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.