Reporting on a case that only slightly trumps Gameological’s “Mystery Of The Mysterious Wooden Dice,” The Telegraph has published a look into Cicada 3301, an elaborate online (and offline) cryptography puzzle/game, the origins of which have yet to be uncovered almost two years after it first appeared in January 2012.
The Telegraph piece smartly uses the first-hand experiences of Joel Eriksson, a computer analyst, Cicada enthusiast, and “skilled cryptographer,” to give a detailed account of the phenomenon’s story from the beginning. Eriksson found the first clue on an Internet forum and, thinking he had solved it using your run of the mill Caesar cipher, was greeted with an apparent “gotcha” message and the mocking stare of a decoy duck. That’s when things started to get interesting. From this point on, the puzzle would take thousands of participants, armed with Mayan numerology and a whole pantload of prime numbers, on a journey that included stops at real-world locations (that were probably spooky) and the special part of the Internet where drug dealers and human traffickers hang out.
After a month, the whole thing was solved. It ended with a webpage where sleuths could leave their email addresses. According to the article, a few were lucky enough to receive replies that asked about conducting private puzzles. The rest were branded as unworthy followers and, although they didn’t know it at the time, were forced to wait until January 2013 for another chance. But the bigger mystery, the puzzle’s origin, still stands. A good portion of the Telegraph piece is dedicated to identifying the organizations that might be responsible for putting Cicada together. There have been a few clues within the puzzle’s fiction. A lengthy post by someone claiming to be an ex-member of the group behind Cicada proclaimed its creator to be a shadowy occult organization bent on transforming “humanity into the Nietzschen Übermensch.” Slightly more realistic guesses peg it as a recruitment tool for government intelligence agencies, which are always in need of some more people to hack and decrypt things.