Since 2012 some of the most arguably intelligent minds have been baffled by a complex cryptographic puzzle designed to recruit the best of the best code-breakers.
On January 4th, 2012, a mysterious message was posted to the 4Chan forum calling for “highly intelligent individuals” to solve a complex series of cryptogram puzzles.
Why are these Cryptogram Puzzles so Appealing?
Cicada 3301 has often been referred to as “the most elaborate and mysterious puzzle of the internet age” and has been listed as one of the “top 5 eeriest, unsolved mysteries of the internet” by The Washington Post.
Part of the Internet’s obsession with Cicada 3301 comes from its massive scale.
Throughout the “testing”, multiple clues have required participants to travel to various places across the globe before moving on to the next clue. These clue locations have included the following cities:
- Annapolis, Maryland, US
- Chino, California, US
- Columbus, Georgia, US
- Dallas, Texas, US
- Erskineville, Australia
- Fayetteville, Arkansas, US
- Flushing, New York, US
- Granada, Spain
- Greenville, Texas, US
- Haleiwa, Hawaii, US
- Little Rock, Arkansas, US
- Los Angeles, California, US
- Miami, Florida, US
- Moscow, Russia
- New Orleans, Louisiana, US
- Okinawa, Japan
- Paris, France
- Portland, Oregon, US
- Seattle, Washington, US
- Lincoln, Nebraska, US
- Seoul, South Korea
- Warsaw, Poland
- Mexico City, Mexico
Moreover, the clues themselves have spanned a wide range of media formats including Internet, telephone, original music, bootable Linux CDs, digital images, physical paper signs, and pages of unpublished cryptic books (including the notorious Liber Primus).
In addition to using many varying techniques to encrypt, encode, or hide data, these clues also have referenced cryptographic, mathematical, technological literary, artistic, and philosophical sources including:
- Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), a poem by William Gibson
- The Ancient of Days, a design by William Blake
- Anglo-Saxon Rune alphabet
- Johann Sebastian Bach
- C. Escher
- Francisco Goya
- Gödel, Escher, Bach, a book by Douglas Hofstadter
- Liber AL vel Legis by Aleister Crowley
- The Lady of Shalott, a painting by John William Waterhouse
- The Mabinogion, a series of pre-Christian Welsh manuscripts
- Mayan Numerology
- The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a book by William Blake
- Nebuchadnezzar, a design by William Blake
- Newton, a design by William Blake
- Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Song of Liberty, a poem by William Blake
- Collective consciousness and collective intelligence
- Ego death
- Carl Jung
- Kabbalah and Hermetic Qabalah
- Søren Kierkegaard
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Grigori Rasputin
- Jean-Paul Sartre
- Robert Anton Wilson
- Zen Buddhism
- Atbash cipher
- Book ciphers
- Caesar cipher
- Diffie–Hellman key exchange
- General number field sieve
- Kurt Gödel and his incompleteness theorems
- GNU Privacy Guard (GnuPG or GPG)
- Francis Heylighen
- Magic squares
- Number theory
- Prime numbers
- Pretty Good Privacy
- RSA Encryption Algorithm
- Shamir’s Secret Sharing Scheme
- Steganography in digital images, text, and network protocols
- Strange loops
- The Onion Router (Tor)
- Transposition ciphers
- The Vigenère Cipher
What was the Goal of the Cicada 3301 Puzzle?
Since 2012, it has been widely speculated as to who Cicada 3301 is and what their ultimate goals are.
Many have speculated that the puzzles are a recruitment tool for the NSA, CIA, MI6, underground Masonic societies, or cyber mercenary groups. Still, others view the Cicada 3301 puzzle as a type of AR game, though, no company or individual has taken credit or tried to monetize it.
If the goal of Cicada 3301 was tied to a specific governmental program, it wouldn’t appear on such a global scale. According to the UK Metro News, “government intelligence agencies have recruited code-breakers through similar puzzles in the past. But Nigel Smart, professor of cryptology at the University of Bristol, doesn’t think this is the case here. ‘I have no idea who would be recruiting via that means,’ he said. ‘Probably not a government because it was non-geographic. GCHQ and the US government run similar challenges but would always aim it at UK or US people respectively’”.
If the goal was for entertainment or gaming purposes, no profits are being made, but it may just be for enjoyment (either by creator actively participating or by watching others struggle to achieve meaning from the meaningless).
If the goal was social or ideological, members of 3301 sought to collect highly intelligent members potentially capable of:
- governmental influence for ideological cause
- construction of a society uniquely reliant on futurism/intellectualism/collectivism.
In essence – a human embodiment of the elements we typically ascribe to technology and a possible appeal to techno-anarchists.
Could Anonymous have Written 3301?
As someone who used to be heavily active on 4chan from about 2004 to 2008, I can certainly say that this is something the community is/was capable of. Cicada 3301 was formed around the same time as the “Anon” ideology came to a crescendo (before the formation of the official hacker group “Anonymous”).
In fact, since its inception 4Chan members who identify as “Anon” have largely maintained an overarching ideology / political stance that is incredibly similar to the Cicadian tenants. 3301 may have been another way to both expand and improve Anon’s fledgling community of hackers.
This theory seems to be supported by the account of Marcus Wanner, one of the only persons to publicly announce their successful completion on the Cicada 3301 puzzle.
“[Wanner] 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,” said TechDigg, “They claimed only that the group was a collection of individuals with a common goal, to end tyranny, censorship, and oppression”.
Ultimately, these are some of the selfsame principles Anonymous holds near and dear. However, Cicada 3301 has not advocated illegal activities or hacking in any way. Ultimately, they appear to be, as TechDigg claims, a group “exclusively dedicated to researching and developing techniques and technology to aid in the ideas they advocate which are liberty, transparency, and security through technology”.