Cicada 3301

ciphertexts

Cicada 3301 is a nickname given to an organization that on three occasions has posted a set of puzzles to recruit codebreakers from the public. The first internet puzzle started on January 4, 2012 on 4chan 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.

Much speculation exists as to its function. It has been speculated that the puzzles are a recruitment tool for the NSA, CIA, MI6, a ‘Masonic conspiracy’ or a cyber mercenary group. Others have claimed Cicada 3301 is an alternate reality game. No company or individual has taken credit for it or attempted to monetize it, however.

The puzzles focused heavily on data security, cryptography, steganography (the concealment of a file within another file), internet anonymity, and surveillance. It has been called ‘the most elaborate and mysterious puzzle of the internet age. The stated purpose of the puzzles each year has been to recruit ‘highly intelligent individuals,’ though the ultimate purpose remains unknown. It has been called a secret society (with the goal of improving cryptography, privacy and anonymity), or more nefariously, a cult or religion.

Unidentified individuals have claimed to have completed the process, but verification from the organization was never made and the individuals making the claim have not been forthcoming with information. The first puzzle, of 2012, is claimed to have been solved by Marcus Wanner, who said he was asked questions about his support of information freedom, online privacy and freedom, and rejection of censorship. Those who answered satisfactorily at this stage were invited to a private forum, where they were instructed to devise and complete a project intended to further the ideals of the group. He did not finish his work on a method of general decryption, and the website was removed.

The Cicada 3301 clues have spanned many different media including internet, telephone, original music, bootable Linux CDs, digital images, physical paper signs, and pages of unpublished cryptic books written in runes. One book, titled ‘Liber Primus,’ literally ‘first book,’ contains many pages, only some of which have been decrypted. 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 (GNU Privacy Guard, open source cryptography software) private key to confirm authenticity.

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. Tim Dailey, a senior research fellow with the conservative Christian 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.’ Others have claimed that the Cicada 3301 puzzles are a modern and technological equivalent to the enlightenment journey within Western esotericism and Mystery schools.

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