On January 2012 there was a mysterious post on the popular forum 4Chan calling for cryptologists to decipher a series of puzzles. The message 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 you on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few that will make it all the way through. good luck. 3301”
It was unclear as to who had posted this image and what the ultimate end goal of solving the puzzle was. Regardless, those that frequented the forum 4Chan immediately began trying to decipher the puzzle hidden within the image.
They first tried opening it in a RAR program and found nothing. They then opened the image in Photoshop and began to change the brightness and contrast levels in order to analyze patterns within the noise. Eventually, they opened the image in Notepad, and when they scrolled to the bottom, they found a message hidden in the code.
The code instructed the potential cryptographers to insert the message into what is known as a Caesar Cypher. This Caesar cypher was invented by Julius Caesar to encode top secret military messages. Upon entering the message into a Caesar Cypher, they found a link to an image. Solvers were quick to find that they needed to use a steganography application called ‘Outguess’ to decipher the next clue.
Who is Cicada 3301?
The mysterious group calling themselves Cicada 3301 continued over the next few years to link puzzle after puzzle to be solved by curious cryptographers. Each successive clue in the series of puzzles was more complicated than the last. The puzzles required an in-depth understanding of mathematics, cryptography, history and computer systems.
It was widely speculated as to who Cicada 3301 might be. Some speculated that it was Russian or American intelligence agencies which were using the puzzles as a means of recruitment. Others thought it was the group ‘Anonymous’ or perhaps a more subversive group of elite hackers. It was even theorized to be a group of elite hackers from both intelligence agencies gone rogue.
Eventually, teams of math prodigies and puzzle solvers from around the world began to assemble in a combined effort to decipher the cryptic messages and hidden clues. Over time, there was no way of knowing just how many people were working on the series of puzzles.
Forums began to emerge where interested parties would meet online and discuss the clues. Slowly but surely, the puzzles were solved and a collective momentum was mounting.
Where were the clues?
Somehow Cicada 3301 had planted clues in specific locations around the world. More than a dozen clues spread over four continents were found by deciphering encrypted clues containing the longitude and latitude of posters and graffiti on the street corners and back alleys of the globe.
Solvers then crowdsourced volunteers near the given locations to take pictures of the clues posted by Cicada 3301. The posters contained QR codes which were then relayed back to the forums for people to cipher.
These posters were found in Warsaw, Poland, Arknasaw, Paris, Seattle, Miami and many other locations. When scanned with a QR reader, the codes led to web pages containing one of two riddles. The complexity of the puzzles grew vastly over time and eventually cipher groups and individuals became frustrated and lost interest.
The unlikely success
A skinny 15-year-old alienated intellectual named Marcus Wanner was eventually one of the last few participants left in the hunt. Marcus was homeschooled and had an unlimited amount of time to spend dedicated to solving the puzzles.
Out of the thousands that initially participated, he was one of the few which had succeeded through obsessive perseverance. Eventually, he received an email from Cicada 3301 congratulating him on finishing his testing. They told him that there was one last step. The last leg of the journey did not incorporate any puzzles, riddles or Easter egg hunts but rather honesty and integrity.
The email that Marcus received revealed that this journey of discovery was concocted by an international group which had no name or symbol of representation. They claimed only that the group was a collection of individuals with a common goal, to end tyranny, censorship and oppression.
Cicada 3301 is ultimately a think tank. They do no advocate illegal activities, nor do they involve themselves in hacking of any kind. The group is exclusively dedicated to researching and developing techniques and technology to aid in the ideas they advocate which are liberty, transparency and security though technology.
Clues within the Cicada 3301 puzzle system even seemed to have predicted Wikileaks release of vault 7. Is it possible that the people that created this system of puzzles is responsible for one of the most damning data dumps in history?
The mystery behind the series of puzzles is still vast and shrouded in darkness. It seems as more of this mystery is revealed to the public, the larger the mystery grows. This is by no means the end of the uncovering, but for the purpose of keeping this article at a reasonable length, my documentation of it is concluded for now.