Cicada 3301 is a name given to an enigmatic organization that on three occasions has posted a set of complex puzzles to recruit capable cryptanalysts from the public. The first Internet puzzle started on January 5, 2012 and ran for approximately one month. A second round began one year later on January 5, 2013, and a third round is ongoing following confirmation of a fresh clue posted on Twitter on January 5, 2014. The stated intent was to recruit "intelligent individuals" by presenting a series of puzzles which were to be solved, each in order, to find the next. The puzzles focused heavily on data security, cryptography, and steganography.
It has been called "the most elaborate and mysterious puzzle of the internet age," and is listed as one of the "Top 5 eeriest, unsolved mysteries of the Internet" by The Washington Post, and much speculation exists as to its purpose. Many have speculated that it is a recruitment tool for the NSA, CIA, MI6, or a cyber mercenary group. Others have claimed it is an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), but the fact that no company or individual has taken credit or tried to monetize it, combined with the fact that none who have solved the puzzles have ever come forward, has led most to feel that it is not. Others have claimed it is run by a bank working on cryptocurrency.
In January 2012, an image containing a message stating that the poster was looking for intelligent individuals and inviting users to find a hidden message in the image which would lead them on the road to finding them began making its way across the internet. This image was the first puzzle in the series. The image was reposted by people to other boards and sites, increasing Internet interest in the puzzle. People attempting to solve the puzzles grouped together on the mibbit and n0v4 IRC networks, with splinter groups making use of private IRC channels, forums, and Skype groups.
The stated purpose of the puzzles each year has been to recruit "highly intelligent individuals", although the ultimate purpose remains unknown. Some have claimed that Cicada 3301 is a secret society with the goal of improving cryptography, privacy and anonymity.
The ultimate outcome of all three rounds of Cicada 3301 recruiting is still a mystery. The final known puzzles became both highly complex and individualized as the game unfolded. Anonymous individuals have claimed to have "won", but verification from the organization was never made and the individuals making the claim have not been forthcoming with information.
An email was reportedly sent to some individuals who completed the 2012 puzzle, revealing that those who successfully solved the puzzles were given a personality assessment. Those who passed this stage were reportedly admitted into the organization, although nothing more is known.
Types of clues
The Cicada 3301 clues have spanned many different communication mediums including Internet, telephone, original music, bootable Linux CDs, digital images, physical paper signs, and pages of unpublished cryptic books. In addition to using many varying techniques to encrypt, encode or hide data, these clues also have referenced a wide variety of books, poetry, artwork and music. Each clue has been signed by the same GnuPG private key to confirm authenticity.
Among others, these referenced works include:
Physical locations of clues
Throughout the testing, multiple clues have required participants to travel to various places to retrieve 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
- 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
- Seoul, South Korea
- Warsaw, Poland
Speculation that the Cicada 3301 organization is large and well-funded is supported by the existence of clues in a large number of locations, all quite distant from one another, appearing at the same time.
Allegations of illegal activity
Authorities from the Los Andes Province of Chile claim that Cicada 3301 is a "hacker group" and engaged in illegal activities. Cicada 3301 responded to this claim by issuing a PGP-signed statement denying any involvement in illegal activity.
The September 30, 2014 episode of Person of Interest "Nautilus" featured a large-scale game very similar to the Cicada 3301 puzzles. Both feature a series of worldwide cryptographic puzzles, but instead of a cicada logo, these feature the image of a nautilus. Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan and producer Greg Plageman stated in an interview that Cicada 3301 was the inspiration for the episode: "Episode 2, I’m particularly fascinated by the subject underneath it. Look up Cicada 3301 on the internet. It’s a very interesting concept out there that we then put into a larger story that connects to our show."
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