Unresolved: Down the Rabbit Hole of Cicada 3301

Previously: The Man from Taured.

On January 4, 2012, an image appeared on 4chan’s /x/board. This in and of itself is not unusual; after all, the exchange of content is what 4chan is primarily for. But this image was different. Consisting of white text on a black background, the image confronted readers with the following message:

“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.”

It was signed simply “3301” —  with the “we” it referred to being the group that would eventually become known as Cicada 3301.

And with that, the race was on. Code breakers, programmers, puzzle solvers, and more from all over the world began hunting furiously for the answer to the puzzle, only to have it go far deeper than any of them likely realized it ever would.

Michael Grothaus at Fast Company has written what is perhaps the clearest and most easily understood summary of the 2012 Cicada 3301 puzzle; in a profile of one of the people who solved most of it, Swedish cryptosecurity researcher and developer Joel Eriksson, Grothaus explained it step by step in terms accessible to laypeople. I’ll send you over there to read the whole thing, but suffice to say that it was quite the scavenger hunt. In short (take a deep breath and brace yourselves): The first image lead to a cypher, which led to an image of a duck, which led to a book code, which led to more images, which led to a phone number, which led to a math problem, which led to a website, which led to a series of geographic coordinates across the globe, which led to a bunch of QR codes found at each location, which led to a William Gibson poem, which led to an address on the anonymous Tor network. Although this wasn’t the ultimate solution, it was as far as Eriksson got; the clue leading to the Tor page had also included a message stating:

“You’ve shared too much to this point. We want the best, not the followers. Thus, the first few there will receive the prize. Good luck.”

And Eriksson apparently arrived too late.

The Uncovering Cicada Wikia has some information about what followed, although they also note that it’s patchy due to the fact that the endgame is not well documented. Those who arrived in time were instructed to create a brand new email account with a “public, free web-based service” and submit it to the Tor page. They were told that, within the next few days, 3301 would email them a number that would direct them to a new URL. Once there, several new puzzles emerged, one of which was unique to each player who had made it that far and one of which involved some old-school MIDI music.

And… that’s really all we know. On February 6, 2012, a message was uploaded to a number of places, including Imgur and Reddit; it reads as follows:

Another test followed on January 5, 2013, and another on January 6, 2014. Throughout it all, though, what has never once become clear is exactly who Cicada 3301 is, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Sure, we know that they’re looking for “highly intelligent individuals” — but to what end? Theories abound, of course. They’re thought to be well-funded and incredibly organized; maybe they’re a group of hackers; or if not, then an intelligence organization, perhaps the CIA or MI6 (although Ron Patrick, head of recruitment for the CIA, told Rolling Stone earlier this year that “it’s definitely not us”). Some think they’re terrorists, but there’s never been any evidence to suggest they’re malevolent or violent. Maybe it’s all just a prank.

Something interesting, by the way, happened after Michael Grothaus published his profile of Joel Erikkson in November of 2014: He began receiving regular emails from people claiming to be part of the Cicada 3301 inner sanctum. Although many of them were “obvious fakes,” wrote Grothaus, “Every once in a while I’ll get an email that has the air of believability about it. These emails give me enough of a kick to look into not only the claims they make, but to investigate the person who’s made them.”

Tekknolagi (not his real name, obviously) was one such person who sent one such email. Verified by Grothaus, as well as by David Kushner at Rolling Stone, Tekknolagi was, for a space of time, part of Cicada 3301 after solving the 2012 puzzle. Along with about 20 others, Tekk was given access to a Tor site belonging to 3301. Je can only tell us so much about the true nature of 3301; only small pieces of information were revealed to those in the 2012 “brood,” as it was called, and I would bet money that there’s a complex and many-layered hierarchy within Cicada 3301 as a whole.

“They wanted to further the use of cryptography in the world so people could have privacy and anonymity and stuff like that,” Tekk told Grothaus. The brood were meant to develop software to those ends. Additionally, a leaked email allegedly from members of Cicada 3301 reads as follows:

“You have all wondered who we are and so we shall now tell you we are an international group we have no name we have no symbol we have no membership rosters we do not have a public website and we do not advertise ourselves we are a group of individuals who have proven ourselves much like you have by completing this recruitment contest and we are drawn together by common beliefs a careful reading of the texts used in the contest would have revealed some of these beliefs that tyranny and oppression of any kind must end that censorship is wrong and that privacy is an inalienable right…

“You are undoubtedly wondering what it is that we do we are much like a *think tank* in that our primary focus is on researching and developing techniques to aid the ideas we advocate liberty privacy security you have undoubtedly heard of a few of our past projects and if you choose to accept membership we are happy to have you on-board to help with future projects.”

Tekk, who was only 16 at the time, and another teenager he had teamed up with to crack the 2012 puzzle, Marcus Wanner, both accepted.

However, who the group actually is remains unknown. Neither Tekk nor Wanner ever figured it out — and furthermore, they are no longer part of Cicada 3301. Tekk stopped visiting the darknet site just a few weeks after gaining access to it (he was, after all, only a teenager, with many more things on his plate in the offline world); Wanner, however, got to work on something called the Cicada Anonymous Key Escrow System (CAKES), meant to, as David Kushner wrote, “trigger the automatic publication of sensitive data online if and when the whistle-blower or researcher was indisposed for a designated period of time (due to, say, death or incarceration).”

Kushner’s Rolling Stone piece focuses primarily on Wanner, so although Tekknolagi’s account as related to Grothaus at Fast Company runs out after a while, we can pick up the narrative somewhat with Wanner. When the 2013 puzzle launched, Wanner was already working on CAKES; since he was already on the inside, therefore, he didn’t make any serious attempt to solve it. Even so, though, there was little to no information to be had about the state of the 2013 puzzle. All Wanner knew was that he hadn’t seen any new members on the darknet site he’d been working on — which, combined with the mutters around the Internet that solvers had run into a wall this time, suggested that perhaps the 2013 puzzle had found no brood.

But maybe it did — and maybe it meant that the 2012 brood was no longer needed. In March of 2013, another 2012 brood member, Sage, messaged Wanner and told him they’d been “laid off.” They were not told why, though, and when Wanner attempted to log onto the darknet site, he found it had vanished.

Given the pattern of new puzzles being posted shortly after the start of the new year, it was expected that another round would begin on January 7, 2015. However, no puzzle was forthcoming; on January 9, redditor luceatnobis wrote on the r/cicada sub that “we are left… without a confirmed trace of Cicada.

But although no new puzzles have emerged yet this year, the Cicada Twitter account did finally post something on July 28 — although the reason for the message may not be what many expected:

The link leads to a Pastebin file stating that 3301 has nothing to do with the Planned Parenthood hacks that occurred earlier this summer.

“Some news organizations have recently claimed that ‘3301’ is tied to the illegal activities of a group that has claimed responsibility for attacks against Planned Parenthood.

We do not engage in illegal activities. We are not associated with this group in any way, nor do [we] condone their use of our name, number, or symbolism.”

This, by the way, is why I don’t think Cicada 3301 is a terrorist group. True, as each puzzle has taught us, we probably shouldn’t be taking everything that comes out of this situation at face value; still, though. I doubt they would have come out of the woodwork after such a long and conspicuous absence to clarify that they are not only not the ones responsible for the Planned Parenthood hacks, but also that they don’t participate in any illegal activities, unless they really, really meant it.

But maybe that’s just me.

In any event, we’re still left wondering why has there been no puzzle in 2015. Perhaps it’s because the 2014 puzzle was, as far as we know, never completed. However, it’s also possible, as the Uncovering Cicada Wikia notes, that 2014 was simply the last year for Cicada 3301. Of course, if 2014 was the final year, the question of “why?” still remains. Did they find all the “highly intelligent people” they needed? If so, what are all those geniuses doing now? What’s the next step — if, that is, there’s even a next step at all? What else, beyond CAKES, might they have up their sleeve? And if, as Tekknolagi told Fast Company, the group puts an emphasis on “infiltrating” large and well-known companies and organizations… again: Why?

Even if there’s no puzzle in 2015 — or ever again — Cicada 3301 remains, without a doubt, one of the weirdest unexplained mysteries on the Internet. We’re not likely ever to know the answer…

…But we can keep wondering about it all the same.

Recommended reading:

Meet the Man Who Solved the Mysterious Cicada 3301 Puzzle.

Inside the Cicada 3301 Cabal.

Cicada: Solving the Web’s Deepest Mystery.

[Images: GTFOpvp, Valete!/Imgur]

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