For the past two years, a mysterious online organization, 3301 Cicada has been teasing the world’s finest code-breakers through a series of seemingly unsolvable problems. But to what end? Two cryptic rounds of code deciphering intrigue started in early 2012 & has cryptography enthusiasts & serious hackers alike waiting for the third game to start January 4th, 2014.
One evening in January last year computer savvy individuals from Sweden to San Francisco were trawling the web & came across a message on an internet forum. The message was in stark white type, against a black background.
“Hello,” it said. “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.”
With this single image/message the world’s brightest private code-breakers embarked on one of the internet’s most enduring puzzles; a scavenger hunt that has led thousands of competitors across the web, down telephone lines, out to several physical locations around the globe, & into unchartered areas of the “darknet“. The hunt required a knowledge of number theory, philosophy and classical music. An interest in both cyberpunk literature & the Victorian occult has also come in handy as has an understanding of Mayan numerology.
For some, it’s just a fun game, like a more complicated Sudoku; for others, it has become an obsession. Only one thing is certain: as it stands, no one is entirely sure what the challenge – known as Cicada 3301 – is all about or who is behind it. Depending on who you listen to, it’s either a mysterious secret society, a statement by a new political think tank, or an arcane recruitment drive by some quasi-military body. Which means, of course, everyone thinks it’s the CIA.
The puzzles themselves have different directions: hexadecimal characters, reverse-engineering, prime numbers. Pictures of the cicada insect – reminiscent of the moth imagery in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs – are a common motif. The puzzles have even lead to the cyberpunk writer William Gibson – specifically his 1992 poem “Agrippa” (a book of the dead), infamous for the fact that it was only published on a 3.5in floppy disk, and was programmed to erase itself after being read once.
Word has spread across the web, intriguing thousands of amateur code-breakers to join the hunt for clues over two years & two rounds of this game. Armies of users of 4chan, the anarchic internet forum where the first Cicada message is thought to have appeared, pooled their collective intelligence – and endless free time – to crack the puzzles.
Decoding The Lady of the Fountain during the first round in 2012 was first time participants were pushed into the real world with a clue, and a new message. It was surprise: “Call us,” it read, “at telephone number 214-390-9608”.
By this point, only a few days after the original image was posted the number was disconnected. The phone line was based in Texas, and led to an answering machine. There, a robotic voice told users to find the prime numbers in the original image. By multiplying them together, the solvers found a new prime and a new website: 845145127.com. A countdown clock and a huge picture of a cicada were the only remaining clues.
With no other clues, it was also asssumed 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.
Back in 2010, for example, Air Force Cyber Command – the United States’ hacking defence force, based at Fort Meade in Maryland – secretly embedded a complex hexadecimal code in their new logo. Cybercom head Lt Gen Keith Alexander then challenged the world’s amateur analysts to crack it (it took them three hours). And in September this year, GCHQ launched the “Can You Find It?” initiative – a series of cryptic codes designed to root out the best British cryptographers. As GCHQ’s head of resourcing Jane Jones said at the time, “It’s a puzzle but it’s also a serious test – the jobs on offer here are vital to protecting national security.”
Dr Jim Gillogly, former president of the American Cryptogram Association, has been cracking similar codes for years and says it’s a tried and tested recruitment tactic.
“During the Second World War, the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School used crossword puzzles printed in The Daily Telegraph to identify good candidates for Bletchley Park,” he says. “But I’m not sure the CIA or NSA is behind Cicada. Both are careful with security, the recent Snowden case notwithstanding. And starting the puzzle on [the anarchic internet forum] 4chan might attract people with less respect for authority than they would want working inside.”
The game ended as quickly as it began with longitude & latitude coordinates leading sleuths to locations around the world… from Warsaw, Seattle, New Orleans, Paris & Australia to find posters with QR codes on light poles… leading a small number of participants to sign up secretly on a website that quickly turned everyone else away.
So, after designated number of solvers visited the address, the website shut down with a terse message: “We want the best, not the followers.” The chosen few received personal emails – detailing what, none have said, although one solver heard they were now being asked to solve puzzles in private. A few weeks later, a new message from Cicada was posted on Reddit. It read: “Hello. We have now found the individuals we sought. Thus our month-long journey ends. For now.” All too abruptly for thousands of intrigued solvers, it had gone quiet.
On January 4 this year, something new. A fresh image, with a new message in the same white text: “Hello again. Our search for intelligent individuals now continues.” Analysis of the image would reveal another poem – this time from the book Liber Al Vel Legis, a religious doctrine by the English occultist and magician Aleister Crowley. From there, the solvers downloaded a 130 megabyte file containing thousands of prime numbers. And also an MP3 file: a song called The Instar Emergence by the artist 3301, which begins with the sound of – guess what – cicadas.
Analysis of that has since lead to a Twitter account pumping out random numbers, which in turn produced a “gematria”: an ancient Hebrew code table, but this time based on Anglo-Saxon runes. This pointed the solvers back into the darknet, where they found seven new physical locations, from Dallas to Moscow to Okinawa, and more clues. But that’s where, once again, the trail has gone cold. Another select group of “first solvers” have been accepted into a new “private” puzzle – this time, say reports, a kind of Myers-Briggs multiple-choice personality test.
But still, we are no closer to knowing the source, or fundamental purpose, of Cicada 3301. It is impossible to know for sure. For thousands of other hooked enthusiasts, January 4, 2014 the next set of riddles is due to begin again.