Cicada 3301 is a name given to an enigmatic organization that on six occasions has posted a set of complex puzzles and alternate reality games to possibly recruit codebreakers from the public. The first internet puzzle started on January 4, 2012, and ran for approximately one month. A second round began one year later on January 4, 2013, and a third round following the confirmation of a fresh clue posted on Twitter on January 4, 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. No new puzzles were published on January 4, 2015. However, a new puzzle was posted on Twitter on January 5, 2016. The puzzles focused heavily on data security, cryptography, and steganography.
It has been called "the most elaborate and mysterious puzzle of the internet age" and is listed as one of the "top 5 eeriest, unsolved mysteries of the internet" by The Washington Post, and much speculation exists as to its purpose. Many have speculated that the puzzles are a recruitment tool for the NSA, CIA, MI6, or a cyber mercenary group. Others have claimed Cicada 3301 is an alternate reality game, but the fact that no company or individual has taken credit or tried to monetize it, combined with the fact that no known individuals that solved the puzzles have ever come forward, has led most to feel that it is not. Others have claimed it is run by a bank working on cryptocurrency.
The stated purpose of the puzzles each year has been to recruit "highly intelligent individuals", though the ultimate purpose remains unknown. Some have claimed that Cicada 3301 is a secret society with the goal of improving cryptography, privacy and anonymity. Others have claimed that Cicada 3301 is a cult or religion.
In the first year, they only sought intelligent individuals; in the second year, this was altered to "highly intelligent" individuals.
The ultimate outcome of all three rounds of Cicada 3301 recruiting is still a mystery. The final known puzzles became both highly complex and individualized as the game unfolded. Anonymous individuals have claimed to have "won", but verification from the organization was never made and the individuals making the claim have not been forthcoming with information.
An email was reportedly sent to some individuals who completed the 2012 puzzle, revealing that those who successfully solved the puzzles were given a personality assessment. Those who passed this stage were reportedly admitted into the organization, although nothing more is known.
Types of clues
The Cicada 3301 clues have spanned many different communication media 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 reference 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
- Lincoln, Nebraska, US
- Seoul, South Korea
- Warsaw, Poland
- Mexico City, Mexico
- Flushing, New York, 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.
In July 2015, a group calling themselves "3301" claimed to have hacked Planned Parenthood; however, the group appears to have no connection to Cicada 3301. Cicada 3301 later issued a PGP-signed statement stating they "are not associated with this group in any way" and also stated that Cicada 3301 does not "condone their use of our name, number, or symbolism". The hacker group later confirmed that they are not affiliated with Cicada 3301.
Claims of being a cult
As the group has gained notoriety and public attention, many have asserted that the puzzles are an introduction to occult principles, and possibly even recruitment for a cult. Dr. Tim Dailey, a senior research fellow with the Family Research Council, analyzed the teachings of Cicada 3301, and stated "The enigmatic Cicada 3301 appears to be drawing participants inexorably into the dark web of the occult a la Blavatsky and Crowley. At the heart of the enchantment is the counterfeit promise of ultimate meaning through self-divination."
- There is no inherent meaning in anything, and all is "empty and meaningless"
- Within each person is an ideal state akin to Nietzsche's Übermensch
- The existence of an emergent god-like Global brain made up of all living things and technology, as described by cyberneticist Francis Heylighen
- There is no need for salvation because there is nothing from which we must be saved
- There is no "real" reality, and what we perceive as reality may be a simulation
- Their use of the term "intelligence" rather than "person" throughout the Liber Primus seems to indicate belief, or at least concern for, sentient artificial intelligence.
- Many of their writings and beliefs focus on ego death
- Liber Primus and other Cicadian texts adhere to an internal Qabalah system based around Cicada 3301's Gematria Primus
There is almost always music accompanying the Cicada video clues. None of these pieces are part of the standard repertoire and neither the composers nor performers are identified. Certain patterns have emerged that indicate that the music itself may be a clue and Cicada is attempting to establish a musical cryptogram in parallel with its other embedded information. Tech Geek 365 analyzed the structure of a number of the pieces and discovered that there are certain dyads (two notes sounding simultaneously) which, when corresponded with letters and numbers, reveal hidden messages.
The plot of "Nautilus", the September 30, 2014 episode of the TV show Person of Interest, featured a large-scale game very similar to the Cicada 3301 puzzles. Both feature a series of worldwide cryptographic puzzles, but as the title implies, these feature the image of a nautilus shell instead of a cicada logo.Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan and producer Greg Plageman stated in an interview that Cicada 3301 was the inspiration for the episode: "Episode 2, I'm particularly fascinated by the subject underneath it. Look up Cicada 3301 on the internet. It's a very interesting concept out there that we then put into a larger story that connects to our show." The game is eventually revealed to have been created by Samaritan, a malicious artificial intelligence that serves as the main antagonist of the show's fourth season, as a means of recruiting operatives.
Artists Rick Steff and Roy Berry of the band Lucero included a Cicada 3301-inspired song on their side-project album Superfluidity. The video, directed by Charlie Fasano, featured artwork taken from the Liber Primus book by Cicada 3301.
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