There are a number of mysteries that surfaces over time, but very few of these remain a mystery after some curious minds decide to decode them. Cicada 3301 is one of those unsolved mysteries of the Internet, that still baffles even the highly intelligent who tried to solve this mysterious puzzle when it first appeared.
On the 4th of January 2012, an unknown user posted an image on 4chan, on its infamous random board (denoted as /b/).
The anonymous user which went by a four-digit pseudonym – 3301, sought ‘highly intelligent’ individuals for which this user challenged others to decode the message hidden within the image. Unknowingly, whoever came across this puzzle, just set in motion of the most elaborate scavenger hunts the internet has ever seen.
While many had no idea where the hidden message was, some were able to decode it within minutes, only to find it was just the beginning.
The first step was to open the image file using a text editor and an appended string of readable text could be found. This string included a cipher that once deciphered, revealed a link to yet another image.
The link then led to the following image –
At first, this image appeared to be a dead-end but using an application named OutGuess, users were able to extract another hidden information embedded within it.
Again, it deciphered into a link, but this time it was a link to a subreddit which in turn contained information about a book named The Mabinogion.
The puzzle didn’t just end here, but it boosted the curiosity of the users who were following this mysterious trail and those who were just spectating it over the boards. The book along with a code uncovered a phone number, and upon calling the number, the following pre-recorded message was played.
Very good, you have done well. There are three prime numbers associated with the original final.jpg image. 3301 is just one of them, you will have to find the other two. Multiply all three of these number together and add a .com on the end to find the next step. Good luck, Goodbye!
As soon as the armchair detectives led to this call recording, it was already reposed all over the internet. A growing community of people trying to solve this mysterious puzzle sought to unravel it but no one was quite sure what to make out of it, where the puzzle was going to lead them? Who was behind it?
Some naturally discarded it taking it as an extensive joke, while others perceived its complexity as evidence that it couldn’t be a work of a mere troll.
In no time rumors started circulating around for it to be a work of some secret society or intelligence agency seeking to recruit highly talented and intelligent individuals proficient in cryptography, stenography, and other related subjects. Of course, it was nothing more than a rumor.
The other two prime numbers that were mentioned in call recording came out to be the dimensions of the original image (509, 503) in pixels. After multiplying the width and height with 3301 (509 x 503 x 3301), and using the product as a web address led the users to a website 845145127.com.
The website revealed a countdown, and when the countdown reached zero, the page was refreshed with a list of coordinates. These coordinates pointed to 14 different locations from 5 different countries. It was now up to the participants living near these specified coordinates to go further and continue revealing the mystery of Cicada 3301.
Those who knew there was a bigger body behind this puzzle now had a pretty strong belief that it was definitely the work of an organization working internationally, since managing such scavenger hunt of this magnitude would have required major collective resources, this could not have been a work of an average troll, this was something else.
After reaching the specified coordinates, people found posters with Cicada Symbol and a QR code below it.
While some of the posters were taped on poles, some were found pasted on the bus stand shelters. The QR-code upon scanning yet revealed a link to another image, and the image again contained a riddle, the riddle led to a book, and the book led to a website.
But this time, the puzzle took a different turn, this time only a selected few of first arrivals were accepted for the final stage of the puzzle. The website eventually closed for those who arrived late, with a message – “We want leaders, not followers.”
Many were disappointed, but no one knew how many and who were selected for the final stage of the puzzle, the finalists were warned not to collaborate with others neither to share the details of this private stage of the puzzle, but since we know about it already, not everyone heeded this warning.
But even if everyone now knew about the warning the finalists of the puzzle received, there was a long silence for almost a month regarding the puzzle, until another image appeared on the subreddit announcing the final conclusion of the puzzle, and just like that the hunt was over.
The people who were chasing the trail to solve Cicada 3301 puzzle were now furious, the complete lack of an explanation was perceived by many as confirmation that the puzzle was nothing more than a wild goose chase intent to troll them. After all, there were a number of unanswered questions. What was the puzzle for? What happened to those who reached the end?
However, as it later turned out, it was just a beginning.
Cicada 3301 returns for a second round
The Cicada 3301 puzzle was a topic of interest on sites like Reddit and 4chan, people were already talking about it not just on the internet but it was now a part of the discussion in the physical world too.
Since Cicada was now famous, hijacking it and fallacious claims were obvious to happen. Reproducing similar puzzles with fake images failed at initial levels and people debunked these unauthentic puzzles before these can even take off.
However, the situation raised a number of questions on the authenticity of the organization behind the original Cicada 3301 puzzle. But as it turned out, whoever was behind this intricate game already foreseen this situation to occur, and to overcome it, they included a code known as a PGP signature along with every clue. This allowed users to authenticate an image or message that was actually from Cicada as opposed to some imposer seeking to derail the puzzle.
It was now time for round two, Cicada was back again, not very different from the first time. Another image was posted enclosing a message, the message led to a book called ‘The Book Of The Law‘, again a link was decoded from the book and the puzzle gradually unfolded. Another recording was uncovered, however, it wasn’t a call recording, but a short sound clip called The Instar Emergence.
The recording further led to a cryptic twitter handle, which contained a post with a runic set of letters and alphabets which remained a mystery for quite some time.
Just like the first puzzle, the second also swelled into the physical world when the runic alphabets were finally solved and revealed another list of coordinates, this time it included 8 locations from 4 countries.
The trail went cold, and another set of armchair detectives were selected by the Cicada 3301. Frustrated and disappointed remaining users again had no clue of what happened with the puzzle this time. Adding more to that, there was no official announcement this time, Cicada was vanished again, leaving no closed to an explanation to those who were curiously expecting a conclusion this time.
No one knew, this wasn’t the end of Cicada puzzle either.
Round three of Cicada 3301
Another image was posted in 2014, and it was the time for round three of the Cicada puzzle. However the message was short this time, the clever minds were quick to decode it within minutes and the next piece of the puzzle was already there.
The image led to a book called Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and as was expected, a link was produced from it, and the puzzle unfolded in a similar way as earlier two rounds. Expect, this time the puzzle revolved around a strange book called Liber Primus.
Liber Primus meant First Book in Latin, and it was evidently written by Cicada itself. The book was entirely written in runic alphabets and the alphabets posted by the strange twitter account previously now made sense.
Deeper the participants went into solving the runic alphabets and messages from the book, more mysterious revelations came out of it. However, out of 74 pages from the book, only 19 were successfully translated over almost a year. For example, one of its pages advised the participants to look for a website on the deep web but the site remained undiscovered. Another page revealed a website containing a recording called Interconnectedness. Eventually, the book comprised of a myriad of clues and codes most of which are not yet decoded.
The third puzzle from Cicada 3301 seemed to be the most difficult as 2015 went by and yet the puzzle remained nowhere near to an end. At the beginning of 2016, Cicada tried to show the path of enlightenment to the participants by encouraging them for a reexamination of the book.
Along with that, Cicada 3301 now being widely known and was covered on news channels around the world faced backlashes and claimed to be indulged in illegal activities, mainly by the authorities of Los Andes Province of Chiles. However, Cicada replied to the allegation by providing the PGP signature and denied any involvement in such activities.
This time they clearly asked to be aware of any false clues and leads being spread and to verify their PGP signature. In 2015, a group which called itself “3301” hacked Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), but as it later turned out, this group had no association to the Cicada 3301, when they themselves revealed that they were not a part of Cicada, this proved Cicada’s claim to be a legit organization.
But this last puzzle seemed to be the most difficult as even after 5 years, there was minimal progress and complete silence from Cicada itself. Participants and spectators were raising numerous questions now, what was the overall purpose of this puzzle? When it will end? Did Cicada vanish after they had more than needed attention, being involved in illegal activities?
Who actually was behind Cicada 3301?
Since the third puzzle seemed to be impossible to solve, people still needed answers, for which different theories and speculations were made about who was actually behind Cicada 3301.
When the initial image first appeared on 4chan back in 2012, many believed Cicada 3301 to be just a digital marketing corporation, trying to promote their new product or service. As earlier, Microsoft had promoted its newly developed ARG in 2001 in a similar way to promote its new video game, The Halo 2. But this possibility was eliminated soon as this puzzle doesn’t seem to lead to any type of video game neither service or product.
So what possibly this organization could be? The answer to that question became clearer after an email from the Cicada 3301 was revealed. A finalist leaked an email that provided some insight into who this group might be.
In the email, Cicada described themselves as an international group who believe that privacy is an inalienable right. It revealed how they were looking for like-minded individuals in an effort to develop privacy-conscious solutions.
The email included three odd questions, mainly the 2nd question, ‘Do you believe the information should be free?‘ which seemed too hypocritical as the email itself begin with a line ‘DO NOT SHARE THIS INFORMATION‘.
Whoever leaked this email conveniently removed the PGP signature which would have confirmed the authenticity of this email.
Conclusion about Cicada 3301
If Cicada 3301 is believed to be a legit organization, it is not the first one to come up with such techniques to recruit its members. Corporations and governments have used similar recruitment techniques since at least World War II.
In 2013, British Intelligence agency, GCHQ launched a recruitment program known as Can You Find it? Participants had to decrypt a series of cryptograms hidden across the web and those who managed to solve the entire puzzle were offered a prize of position at the agency.
U.S. Navy also launched a similar cryptographic challenge back in 2014, which they called Project Architeuthis.
However, what happened to the participants with these government organized challenges was known, but in case of Cicada 3301, no one seems to have a clue.
Without any progress in the puzzle, the conclusion varies. Is it possible that Cicada decided to end their program in between? Or they still working on their secret projects?
The fact that anyone with a disposable income and enough time on their hand would be able to create such vast network across the globe just for the sake of a puzzle proves that there are possibilities that either Cicada lost its interest with its own recruitment program, or may not want to dispose of any more resources over it. However, we don’t know anything for sure.
The last message from the Cicada was back in 2017, suggesting participants to be safe from any disinformation. We are keeping all ears to the ground, but the status of the third puzzle yet remains a mystery.
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