An elaborate, unsolved Internet mystery

MaryCate Moe, Staff Reporter

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On January 4, 2012, a post surfaced on the internet originating from a site called 4chan. The post was unusual for the site as it was just simple white font on a black background. The post read “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 on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few that will make it all the way through. Good luck.” Then, at the bottom, the message was signed with “3301.”

As to be expected, this unusual message sent users of 4chan spiraling into the unknown on a hunt to solve one of the most elaborate and eeriest internet mysteries to date, known as Cicada 3301.

Cicada 3301 is a puzzle that used different pictures and messages that needed to be solved using not only certain computer software but also with high intelligence.  The puzzles ranged in difficulty, some close to impossible to figure out. The point of Cicada is unsure, though some believe it to be a form of recruiting codebreakers and possibly linguists, as the puzzles tended to focus heavily on data security, cryptography, and steganography.

It is still unsure who made this puzzle, or why. Some believe it was to recruit people for the CIA, NSA, M16, a masonic conspiracy, or a cyber mercenary group. Another theory was that Cicada 3301 is an alternate reality game, and the point was to monetize it. Though, that theory can be eliminated due to the extreme difficulty of the puzzles leaving only a handful of people actually able to complete them, as well as the game never being released and no company ever taking responsibility for it.

With that said, what really is the purpose of the Cicada 3301 and why is it still a mystery after all these years? There are obviously many theories that have been circulated, a few touched on above. They range from cults and religion to being a secret society. Though none of the outsiders to this conspiracy know the true point or purpose. There is still currently no definite answers, but assumptions are endless.

A solver of the puzzles had claimed that the recruitment process actually required little use of the computer-based skills needed to solve the puzzles. Instead, they would be asked questions about about their support of information freedom, online privacy, and rejection of censorship. Those who answered satisfactorily at this stage would be invited to join a private forum. In this forum, they were instructed to devise and complete a project intended to further the ideals of the group. This was admitted by Marcus Warner, who solved the first puzzle in 2012. It has been noted that those that solved Cicada had not been forthcoming with information and avoided sharing too much of their experience.

Nonetheless, it is known for a fact that it takes dedication to work on this puzzle. The clues Cicada left definitely come to show the seriousness of the group. They were sophisticated and elaborate. They incorporated many different things into these clues including stories, books (the most known being Liber Primus which was based off the puzzle itself), philosophical references, as well as cryptographic, mathematical, and technological references. Cicada even entered the physical world by leaving papers in cities across the world. Each clue was signed with a GnuPG authorizing that it was real. If cicada was capable of leaving clues in different places across the world, what else are they capable of?

It seemed like all this was happening in a blur, Cicada 3301 was flourishing, but then out of nowhere, everything seemed to stop. New clues stopped appearing and for 11 months, Cicada went silent. Many reexaminations of their original clues took place, but nothing new was discovered. It was assumed the hunt was over, and so the heat of the situation died down until January 5, 2016. A post surfaced on the internet after being mixed in with other fake posts.

It was another simple white font on black background post, making a reference to the book liber primus. This kickstarted another hunt which eventually ended after it was released that Cicada 3301 had found what they were looking for, though the message mentioned that they would soon be back.

There’s speculation about the return of the group, some saying it will happen in 2021 because that’s when the cicada bugs are said to return. Others believe they’ve already returned. There’s another internet puzzle called The Red Triangle that is eerily similar to Cicada 3301, though it was never verified.

After all this being said, it’s still unsure who Cicada truly was or why this started. To this day, despite the rising amount of answers everything is still left with traces of uncertainty. “With Cicada, no one knows what the goal is,” says one cipher expert, “or how you know when you won.”

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