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A Modern-Day Treasure Hunt: Cracking Cicada 3301

A primer on what you need to know about the internet’s greatest puzzle.

The fact that time is relative is mostly felt by engineers. When they're not making any innovations, it tends to move slowly.

When innovations and disruptions are there to drive them, it moves a bit quicker. So, when we talk about the year 2012, a lot of engineers think of it as practically yesterday.

2012 was the end of the Mayan calendar and was prophesied to be the end of the world. While the world was engaged in the dreadful mockery of the prophecy, there was something entirely different going on in the world of coders.

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Something exciting. And it all started with a message:

“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.

Good luck.

3301”

And suddenly, the internet was buzzing with life. It was the birth of one of the greatest unsolved internet mysteries. 

The puzzle would come to attract not only coders, but cryptographers, mathematicians, and many other non-specialists who were following the developments closely. 

Let us try to put the pieces we have together and see if they reveal any picture.

Puzzle 1

The first Cicada puzzle appeared on a 4chan board on January 5th, 2012. It was white on the black image carrying the above message.
On extracting the image, you get Caesar’s cipher that leads to a URL. This is a link to an Imgur image of a duck saying, “Woops, just decoys here. Looks like you can’t guess how to get the message out.”

But it reveals a hint on further analysis that simply states two words, ‘guess’ and ‘out.’ Using OutGuess, you can proceed further through a series of ten puzzles, each one more difficult than the previous.

The game was on, with a quest that would not be out of place in a Dan Brown novel.

With the right knowledge and temperament, you could have gone through these puzzles and ended up being recruited. But for most of us, the puzzle ended within a month with a sorry-try-again-later message.

Puzzle 2

On January 5th, 2013, a second puzzle was posted in a similar fashion, using an image on several 4chan boards.

“Hello again. Our search for intelligent individuals now continues.

The first clue is hidden within 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.

Good luck

3301”

Solvers again were led through a series of puzzles, which included a bootable Linux disk and music, along with previously used encryption methods. While the puzzles were incredibly difficult and crafted in a meticulous manner, they had charm because, in theory, they were solvable.

All of that changed the very next year, with the posting of the infamous Liber Primus.

Puzzle 3

"Liber Primus is the way. Its words are the map, their meaning is the road, and their numbers are the direction.”

The third puzzle by Cicada is perhaps the most popular one. This is because it hasn’t been solved in the five years since it was first posted.

The 2014 puzzle came to a stalemate with the final part: a 60-page manuscript entirely written in runes called the Liber Primus. The book stands unsolved to this day.

Most people have abandoned the puzzle after years of frustration. Others consider the puzzle finished. Still, some groups are active, hoping to solve it one day.

And even though many have failed to solve it, that does not mean that people have forgotten about it. Every small communication with the Cicada signature sparks a renewed interest in the Liber Primus, though no official puzzles have been posted since 2014.

That leaves us with two missing pieces. What code is the Liber Primus concealing? And the bigger question of who or what is the Cicada 3301.

Speculations

The organization behind the Cicada 3301 puzzle has remained largely anonymous. Apparently, you have to be worthy of getting the answers. And, your worth gets tested through these puzzles that measure your skills in cryptography, steganography, and data security, along with your knowledge of art and literature.

It is natural to believe that the puzzles were posted as a part of their recruitment process. A claim that has been verified by people who supposedly solved the first puzzle. 

Apart from that, not much is known about Cicada 3301.

The organization is notorious for maintaining anonymity, and this has led to a lot of speculations. Some believe that it is the work of some intelligence agencies such as the CIA or MI6. Others think it might be a cult.

There have also been accusations of illegal activity, but Cicada 3301 has denied any association or involvement. They have cautioned people to check the PGP signature to verify that the information is genuine. 

They have also stated that they do not endorse the usage of their name due to the emergence of copycats and other cyber groups.

Cultural Impact

The Cicada puzzles have been featured in or inspired some interesting television series, including the sci-fi drama Person of Interest and the sitcom Young Sheldon.

The plot of Person of Interest revolves around two competing Artificial Superintelligence. A puzzle called Nautilus is used by the antagonist AI to recruit people. 

This situation might not be too far from the truth. The creators, Jonathan Nolan and JJ Abrams are known to use mind-boggling plot devices, and the Cicada puzzle fits in perfectly.

Cicada 3301 is also the subject of an upcoming movie. It even inspired the U.S. Navy to use recruitment puzzles in 2014!

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Puzzles make great leisure activities, but in times of war and stress, they are useful in gathering and communicating crucial information. Solving the puzzles will help you decode enemy intelligence.

Cybersecurity and privacy are recurring themes in the Cicada world. To some people, the internet is a way within itself. Still, it is unclear which is the bigger mystery, the puzzle, or the organization itself.

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