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 exactly one year later on January 5, 2013, and a third round is ongoing following confirmation of a fresh clue posted on Twitter on 5 January 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 that 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 internet mystery that has the world baffled". Daily Telegraph. 25 November 2013. Archived from the original on 25 November 2013. Retrieved 25 November 2013.
- Bell, Chris. "Cicada 3301 update: the baffling internet mystery is back". Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 7 January 2014.
- Hern, Alex. "Cicada 3301: I tried the hardest puzzle on the internet and failed spectacularly". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 11 January 2014.
- "Is mystery internet challenge a recruiting tool for the CIA?". Channel 4 News. 27 November 2013. Archived from the original on 27 November 2013. Retrieved 27 November 2013.
- Lipinski, Jed. "Chasing the Cicada: Exploring the Darkest Corridors of the Internet". Mental_Floss. Archived from the original on 25 November 2013. Retrieved 17 December 2012.
- Ernst, Douglas (November 26, 2013). "Secret society seeks world’s brightest: Recruits navigate ‘darknet’ filled with terrorism, drugs". The Washington Times. Archived from the original on 25 December 2013. Retrieved 13 December 2013.
- Bell, Chris (7 January 2014). "Cicada 3301 update: the baffling internet mystery is back". The Telegraph. Retrieved 10 January 2014.
- Scott, Sam (16 December 2013). "Cicada 3301: The most elaborate and mysterious puzzle of the internet age". Metro. Retrieved 16 December 2013.
- Dewey, Caitlin (12 May 2014). "Five of the Internet’s eeriest, unsolved mysteries". Washington Post. Retrieved 2 May 2014.
- Tucker, Daniel (30 December 2013). "Meet the Teenage Codebreaker Who Helped Solve the Cicada 3301 Internet Puzzle". NPR/WNYC New Tech City. Retrieved 13 May 2014.
- Staff, NPR (5 January 2014). "The Internet's Cicada: A Mystery Without An Answer". All Things Considered, National Public Radio. Retrieved 13 May 2014.
- Andes Online. "PDI advierte sobre nueva modalidad de estafa por internet a través de google". Andes Online.
- McEvoy, Maria (30 April 2014). "US Navy attempting to recruit cryptologists through Facebook game". Telegraph. Retrieved 1 May 2014.
- Stanely, T.L. "The U.S. Navy Wants You — To Solve This Puzzle". Mashable. Retrieved 1 May 2014.