Cicada 3301 is a name given to an anonymous organization that on three occasions has posted a set of complex puzzles, purportedly 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.
While it has been called "the most elaborate and mysterious puzzle of the internet age," much speculation exists as to its purpose. Some claim it is an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), but the fact that no company or individual has taken credit or tried to monetize the puzzles has led some to feel that it is not. Some have speculated that it is a recruitment tool for the NSA, CIA, MI6, or a cyber mercenary group. Others have claimed it is run by a bank working on cryptocurrency.
In January 2012, an image was posted to 4chan's "random" board 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. 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 ultimate outcome of both rounds of Cicada 3301 recruiting is still a mystery. The final known puzzles became both highly complex and individualized as the game unfolded, though at least one person has claimed to have "won", but verification from the creator(s) of the game was never made and the individuals making the claim have not been forthcoming with information.
Reason why people believe that Cicada 3301 is recruiting is invitation email that individuals received after solving the last puzzle in 2012. An anonymous player posted the changed version with minor grammar edits of an email he received in 2012 publicly. Reason for changes is in hiding his identity, since every player received a slightly different email, with different sentence structure or punctuation differences. Players call this document leaked email.
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
- Cedar Rapids, Iowa, US
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.
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- Pastebin. "Leaked email".
- Andes Online. "PDI advierte sobre nueva modalidad de estafa por internet a través de google". Andes Online.
- Pastebin. "PGP signed pastebin message".