Often regarded as the most famous and confounding mystery to originate from the internet, 3301—better known as Cicada 3301—is a much more recent mystery, only dating back to 2012. It's one that I've been dying to talk about for a while for various reasons; not the least of it which being the extremely complex and elaborate nature of the puzzles. Anyways, let's get to it.
On January 4, 2012, a user calling themselves “3301” posted on 4chan’s legendary and infamous random board: /b/. The message read as follows
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.
The message was met with skepticism at first. Trolls and pranks on /b/ constitute as the norm and the odds were in the favor of 3301’s hidden message simply being “lol got you faggot”. However, after a few clever users opened the image into a text editing application, it was discovered there was, indeed, a hidden message within. Said message was a Caesar cipher and, when it was deciphered, revealed an image file, and one was met with this gem.
Although armchair detectives were stumped at the time, a few cleverer individuals figured out that they had to use the application known as OutGuess; hence the usage of the words “guess” and “out”. For the uninitiated, OutGuess is used to hide messages within images.
When opened in the app, the following message appeared.
Here is a book code. To find the book, and more information, go to http://www.reddit.com/r/a2e7j6ic78h0j/ 1:20, 2:3, 3:5, 4:20, 5:5, 6:53, 7:1, 8:8, 9:2, 10:4, 11:8, 12:4, 13:13, 14:4, 15:8, 16:4, 17:5, 18:14, 19:7, 20:31, 21:12, 22:36, 23:2, 24:3, 25:5, 26:65, 27:5, 28:1, 29:2, 30:18, 31:32, 32:10, 33:3, 34:25, 35:10, 36:7, 37:20, 38:10, 39:32, 40:4, 41:40, 42:11, 43:9, 44:13, 45:6, 46:3, 47:5, 48:43, 49:17, 50:13, 51:4, 52:2, 53:18, 54:4, 55:6, 56:4, 57:24, 58:64, 59:5, 60:37, 61:60, 62:12, 63:6, 64:8, 65:5, 66:18, 67:45, 68:10, 69:2, 70:17, 71:9, 72:20, 73:2, 74:34, 75:13, 76:21 Good luck. 3301
From there, players were sent on the wild goose chase to end all wild goose chase. From tracking down old, obscure works of literature to a scavenger hunt that spanned the globe. Ultimately, only the best and brightest were awarded access to a super secret website on the dark web. Everyone else—who Cicada dubbed “followers”—were barred off.
That is, until the second puzzle, which dropped a year and a day after the first. It was largely the same to the initial one; another image with a code to a book that began a goose chase worthy of an Olympic gold medal. Not the least of which being an obscure and ancient rune-based language that dated back to the 700s; Anglo Saxon era nonsense that would actually become relevant.
As was the case last time: the followers were weeded out and the smartest of smarty-pants’ triumphed. Still no answers as to the ultimate goal of Cicada and still no idea who they were. Instead, more silence.
The third and, to date, final puzzle dropped in 2014. It's also the ongoing puzzle due to it not having been completed—even after nearly half a decade. The puzzle, as per the norm by now, started with an image that lead to a book: this time one presumably written by Cicada themselves. This is where most of the puzzle has taken place, with the entire book being encrypted; the runes featured in the previous puzzle replacing the text and players being required to decrypt it all. To date, less than a third of the book has been decrypted, in spite of the efforts of numerous armchair detectives. Rather, silence—save for one solitary update in 2016 telling people not to be swayed off the path.
So two questions remained: who was the user that called themselves 3301—and what was their intention? The answer to that has been revealed by a few people that completed the first puzzle, but not everybody believes it to be the truth. Regardless, I'll go over both it and the most popular theories.
The official answer from a man named Marcus Wanner—who says he solved one of the puzzles—is that Cicada is a group of individuals whose endgame is bring back freedom of information, online privacy and freedom, and abolish the idea of censorship. I find it rather ironic that they're in favor of information freedom, yet have a strict NDA on their puzzles.
It's also been said that users on a deep web forum where Cicada operated out of at one point had 20 users who completed the first puzzle. After a few months, all but one had left due to the lack of puzzles. One can only suspect that this is what lead to more puzzles being made.
However, there's no way to verify these testimonies. Though they're believable on their own, there are those who question as to whether or not the users behind 3301 were telling the truth with their motivations. This is where the other theories as to who was behind 3301 come into play. One of—if not the most—popular theories is that it was a recruitment operation conducted by a government intelligence agency; the most commonly pointed to ones being the FBI, CIA, and MI6. For this blog entry, I'm going to use the CIA as the culprit—both because I'm American and because they're the scapegoat for anything and everything ever done in the history of everything.
Evidence to back this up is usually the complex nature of the puzzles and the extreme secrecy of the answers to the puzzles. This, to believers of the theory, matches up with how secretive and hush-hush the going ons of any intelligence agency can be.
As for why they'd do utilize an image board to conduct this, it's believed the active nature of /b/, coupled with the anonymous nature of it, made for a good location to conduct it. That, along with /b/'s willingness to search through anything, made it a surefire thing for someone to complete it.
The CIA has a history of peculiar experiments. Look no further than MK Ultra. Utilizing the internet to assist in recruiting young, fresh blood is by no means out of the realm of possibility. However, proving such a thing is extremely difficult. The likelihood of the CIA ever giving a statement on whether or not they're behind Cicada 3301 is next to none. Secrecy is ingrained in the blood of the agency and if it ever comes out that it was a recruitment operation, it won't be until sometime far into the future when nobody gives a damn about it anymore—or we've colonized another star system.
The next theory is that Cicada was a recruiting operation for a hacker group. Indeed, the vast majority of these theories have to do with recruitment. This one centers in a black—or white—hat hacker group wanting to find new members to do whatever it is they do. Whether it be taking down illegal websites or by stealing large amounts of money and spending it on luxury items.
Buyers of this theory point to the complex nature of the puzzle and required knowledge of computers. One can also state that all of these theories are fueled by that point one way or another. Regardless, other points are similar to the government agency one; secrecy and reprimanding for spilling any secrets.
Another theory is that Cicada is actually a cult. This theory stems from the enigmatic nature of the messages put out by the group; specifically the ones that reference enlightenment and the still largely undeciphered book.
The fourth theory is that Cicada is an Alternate Reality Game—or an ARG. This theory states that the entire thing is either something made up by a creative person—or group of people—with the intention of stringing players along on some sort wild goose chase. Others believe it to be an advertising campaign. Such an act isn't unheard of—the Cloverfield films and Halo 2 have used ARGs to advertise their respective properties. However, the elaborate nature of the Cicada puzzles, along with no company claiming responsibility or attempting to monetize it—has many doubting this.
The fifth theory is that it's all a troll. As said before: the elaborate nature leaves many in doubt. However, some believe that the fact the third puzzle is still unsolved is intentional and was done to end the troll once and for all.
The sixth theory of note is that Cicada isn't a group at all, but rather an ultra-powerful artificial intelligence that's become self aware. Evidence for this is largely non existent, but there are those that believe it. After all, it's fun to pretend Terminator could be real, right?
The seventh and final theory is that it's aliens. When in doubt: aliens. Amirite?
The truth behind Cicada 3301 is something that has enraptured the internet and continue to do so; with groups dedicated to deciphering the third puzzle. Time will tell if it's ever fully finished, as it will reveal the truth behind Cicada. Until that day, the group remains one of the internet's greatest mysteries.