It’s January, and for some cryptography enthusiasts and high-level puzzle solvers, their Christmas gift has finally arrived in the form of another Cicada 3301 mystery.
Two years ago, a curious message appeared on the message board 4chan:
“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.
Intrigued Internet users quickly discovered that this message concealed numerous other images, clues, and puzzles. It was the start of an elaborate chain that led to hidden websites, as well as GPS coordinates across the globe. (Many of these puzzles and clues were accompanied by an image of a cicada, giving the mystery both a name and a symbol.)
Obscure knowledge (poetry, mathematics, literature, and history have all contributed to various clues), advanced cryptography skills, and some serious tenacity were required to navigate the labyrinthine maze laid out by whoever masterminded Cicada 3301.
Eventually, the savviest and sharpest code-breakers found their way to a secret website, one that vanished after a certain number of crafty solvers discovered it. It then shut down, never revealing to the outside world who was behind the puzzles or why they’d created them.
A year later, on January 5, 2013, another series of puzzles appeared, utilizing different solving techniques, different GPS coordinates, and admitting another select group of puzzle solvers to a secret website before it too shut down.
As of this posting, new puzzles have appeared all over the Internet, though Cicada 3301 enthusiasts believe the vast majority of them to be the work of hoaxers and admirers. (Only one clue so far, a message on Twitter from an account previously used by Cicada 3301, is considered legitimate.)
As you might expect, theorizing abounds regarding the reasons behind the Cicada 3301 puzzles. With the advent of viral marketing and ever-savvier customers, there’s always the possibility that this is an incredibly elaborate video game tie-in or corporate advertising project. (It definitely reminds me of the down-the-rabbit-hole ARG style of that puzzle hidden within the game Portal I wrote about last year.)
But the sheer complexity — and the intrinsic level of secrecy regarding how the puzzles and websites have been managed — has led conspiracy theorists to suspect the CIA, the NSA, or some other government entity. Another leading theory is that a bank or private security company is behind Cicada 3301, recruiting topnotch cryptographers to improve security features and thwart cybercrimes.
It may sound silly or a bit too Last Starfighter-ish, but recruitment-through-puzzle-solving is nothing new to the intelligence community. Crossword puzzles were used to identify potential recruits for Britain’s Bletchley Park, one of the key cryptography centers during World War II.
Whatever the purpose of Cicada 3301’s puzzles, there’s no doubt that puzzle solvers and codebreakers the world over can’t wait for another shot at a challenge like this.
[For further information, check out this NPR story, sent to me by friend of the blog Cathy Quinn!]
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