Attention sleuths, computer geeks, and conspiracy theorists. Here’s your chance to solve a mystery that’s been plaguing hackers and code-breakers for more than two years. Starting on January 5, 2012, an anonymous organization now referred to as Cicada 3301 began posting elaborate puzzles online. The first surfaced on the 4chan message board, and read: “Hello. 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.”
The initial problem wasn’t too hard to crack—there was an image of a cicada concealed inside the words—but the riddles became increasingly obscure and difficult from there, requiring specific knowledge about things like Medieval Welsh literature and ancient Hebrew codes. Code-breakers had to obtain voicemail messages and find physical clues around the world, including posters, like this one that appeared in Warsaw. After about a month, the organization went quiet—for a year.
On January 4, 2013, however, the clues began surfacing again. Sleuths resumed the hunt, but this time, more and more people began to wonder who was behind the mystery. Some people think perhaps the CIA or NSA devised the game; some think it’s some sort of elaborate Masonic conspiracy. Given its international reach, it seems unlikely that a single basement-dwelling computer genius concocted the whole thing, but who knows?
While plenty of people struck out, some were able to crack the code, which lead them to a Darknet, or hidden (not indexed or visible to search engines) website, but the site closed down once a certain number of people—somewhere between 12-24 people—found it, leaving behind the frustrating note: “We want the leaders not the followers.”
On January 5, 2014, the mystery resumed again, this time via a pithy, cryptic Tweet.
— 1231507051321 (@1231507051321) January 6, 2014
Now that the chase has been going on for a few years, it’s become very difficult to tell which puzzles are legitimate Cicada 3301 puzzles and which have been designed by copycats and hackers to make following the real trail even more difficult. But folks are still hot on the trail, finding references to Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Blake, and Nebuchadnezzer. Perhaps it’s a wild goose chase, or perhaps there’s a pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow. Regardless, code-breakers will continue doggedly pursue the greatest mystery on the Internet’s, searching for enlightenment.