On 4 January 2012, a user on 4chan posted the following image:
The user 3301 challenged users to find a hidden message in the image. This started the most elaborative scavenger hunt in internet history. One of the users discovered that when the file is opened with a text editor you uncover readable text. When the text has deciphered a link to another image was found.
For many, this seemed to be the end of the search. However, using an app called OutGuess individuals were able to extract hidden information from within the first image. The information led the user to a subreddit which consisted of information about a book and a code which was uncovered to find a phone number.
When the number was called a pre-recorded message was played.
“You have done well.”
“There are three prime numbers associated with the original final.jpg image.”
“3301 is one of them. You will have to find the other two. Multiply all three of these numbers together and add a .com on the end to find the next step.”
On the next day, the original image had been shared all over the internet. The quest to solve this scavenger hunt grew. Everyone was confused as to what the puzzle was for? who was the mastermind behind it? And What’s the ending? Many assumed it to be a joke, while others thought of it as a work of a troll.
The Two Missing Numbers
The missing numbers in the recording were the width and height of the original image. Multiplying the weight and height with 3301 the answer was 845145127 which was then used as a web address which led the user to countdown with an image of a cicada.
Once the timer was over the page was filled with coordinates which were of locations around the globe. 14 locations in 5 different countries. This finding backed up those individuals who believed that it was the work of a huge organization. In their opinion, only some international collective organization had the capability to produce such a massive scavenger hunt. It was not possible for a troll to accumulate a scavenger hunt of this magnitude.
Each location has a QR code with a cicada symbol. Each code linked to an image which had a riddle which led to a book and the book lead to a website. The twist to this was that only selective group who visited the website first were to solve the final puzzle.
The website closed with a disclaimer saying:
“We want the best, not the followers.”
The Final Stage
The finalist was warned not to share or collaborate with other people. People who accepted this term were advanced to the final stage of the puzzle.
After a month an image appeared on the subreddit which announced the conclusion of the puzzle. They had found the “highly intelligent” individuals they were searching for, but it is unaware of what had happened to them.
This was only the beginning
The second puzzle
The individual who invented the game included an authentication code known as a PGP signature with every clue. This code verified that all the image and messages were from Cicada. The second puzzle was the same as the first one. The image had an encoded message, the message led to a book, the book formed a link and so on.
- The Instar Emergence recording was discovered.
- A cryptic Twiter account which leads to an image
The ending of the second
This time it was 8 locations in 4 different countries. The same pattern as before, a selective group of first arrivals were selected to complete the final stage of the puzzle. However, the second puzzle did not end with a final message from Cicada.
The third puzzle
At the start of 2014, the third round of the puzzle commenced. The third puzzle started with the same method as the first and second one. However, this time the puzzle was based on a book titled “Liber Primus” which is a Latin word meaning “first book” written by Cicada. The runic alphabet which was used in 2013 started to make sense. The book consisted of ideological and philosophical ideas. Many compare the strange writing to that of a cult. Furthermore, the book comprised of codes and clues.
2015 went by without any more new puzzles and many assumed that the Liber Primus had to be completed if Cicada was to come back. Cicada encouraged a reexamination of the book.
Who are they? What is the purpose of the puzzle?
With the help of leaked information which was received by individuals who finished each end-stage of the puzzle. For instance, at the end of the first puzzle finalist received an email in which Cicada defined themselves as an international group who believes that privacy is an inalienable right. The aim of the puzzle is to recruit people who believe in the same ideology, in order to create privacy-conscious solutions.
What about the Recruits?
It’s impossible to separate the finalists from the imposters. In 2015 in a Rolling Stone interview, two supposed winners of the first puzzle elaborated the events of the final stage.
In the final stage, they received an email from Cicada which led to a forum on the dark web. In the forum, they could communicate with 20 different recruits and members of Cicada. They were told that Cicada 3301 had been founded by a group of friends who shared the same ideals related to security, privacy, and censorship. The aim was to make a software application which followed their ideology. The recruits were assigned to build software with the ideology of Cicada while the Cicada members oversee their progress. However, since there was no more puzzle to be solved the recruits were no longer interested. Gradually by the end of 2012 everyone left and after a few months, the site was gone.
The conclusion of the third puzzle and the possibility of the fourth puzzle remains a mystery.