It’s officially been 10 years since the Cicada 3301 puzzle first captivated the internet’s collective imagination. What began with just a few lines of cryptic text has since become the quintessential internet mystery, still consuming the lives of both participants and observers, who remain no closer to answering the simple questions: who is behind Cicada 3301, and what is the game’s real purpose?
What Even Is Cicada 3301?
For those unfamiliar with the Cicada 3301 mystery, here’s a brief summary: in early January, 2012, a seemingly innocuous image was posted to 4chan’s “Science & Math” board. The image featured a black background behind white text, which read the following:
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.
Considering that the image itself contained nothing out of the ordinary, many suspected that the post was the work of a troll. However, a 34 year-old Swedish computer programmer named Joel Eriksson soon shattered that assumption. He discovered a cipher within the image’s code. When decrypted, this cipher revealed a URL that led to yet another puzzle. And as you might guess, solving this puzzle led participants to yet another puzzle, which led to another, etc…
The successive puzzles became increasingly complex, requiring solvers to have a level of expertise in everything from digital cryptography to ancient literature. Some puzzles even sent participants offline to scan QR codes that had been placed in various cities across the world, including Paris, Seoul, Okinawa, and Seattle. Clearly, Cicada was more than “some guy in his mom’s basement” playing an elaborate joke on the internet. This was a global organization, and considering the effort that must have gone into making their puzzles, perhaps the claims in the original post were true: they were recruiting “highly intelligent individuals.” For what, however, we still don’t fully know.
The Liber Primus
And here’s where the mystery hits a roadblock. In January of 2014, Cicada released a new series of puzzles. Solving these led participants to a file containing the Liber Primus, a 58-page book written entirely in code. According to a post by Cicada themselves, “Liber Primus is the way. Its words are the map, their meaning is the road, and their numbers are the direction. Seek and you will be found.”
Understandably, Cicada enthusiasts believe that translating the Liber Primus will finally answer our questions regarding who Cicada is and, more importantly, why Cicada is. Unfortunately, however, in the roughly eight years since the Liber Primus was made publicly available, only two of the 58 pages have been decoded. Cicada has released no new puzzles between then and now.
While the difficulty of transcribing the Liber Primus has caused many old participants to throw in the towel, there are still online communities committed to solving Cicada. The highly recommended documentary Cracking the Code of Cicada 3301 showcases a team of researchers who work collaboratively day-in and day-out to translate the book. One of these researchers, Marcus Wanner, actually solved all of 2012’s puzzles when he was only 15. Of all the game’s known participants, he has the most inside information regarding who Cicada might be, which we will discuss below.
If you want to take a stab at solving the Liber Primus yourself, you can download the book here.
Theories as to who is behind Cicada range from fantastical to ridiculous. Some believe that it is a recruitment method for a global spy organization, such as the CIA. Some even insist that it is comprised of elites seeking to create a New World Order. (For the record, we aren’t convinced by this one.)
However, a more realistic interpretation is that it is simply a group of ingenious programmers recruiting new members to aid in the production of what some may call “revolutionary technologies.” (i.e. tech used by political revolutionaries to keep their online interactions private.)
In the aforementioned documentary Cracking the Code of Cicada 3301, Marcus Wanner claims that after solving the 2012’s puzzles, he was contacted by Cicada themselves. They asked Marcus about his feelings regarding digital privacy and freedom of information. After answering, he–along with the other solvers of the puzzles–were given an assignment.
“They asked us to come up with our own project, and it had to be something to do with digital liberties in general,” Wanner claims. “We came up with a bunch of ideas, and then we selected one…”
“I was all gung ho about it the whole time. And then I was the only one who actually wrote any code on it… I couldn’t get a review on my code, so I stopped working on it. Eventually, Cicada shut the site down… Maybe they’re still working on it [the project]. Maybe I was just kicked out.”
Coincidentally–or perhaps not–Cicada’s ghosting of Wanner occurred around the same time that the Edward Snowden leaks were made public. Interpret that how you will.
Even without a real update from Cicada in years, the mystery continues to enthrall curious minds. With Wanner’s revelations, there are still more questions than answers. Who is Cicada 3301? Why have they been silent for so many years? And most of all, what is inside the Liber Primus? While some are still waiting for the organization to finally release an update, most are convinced that the answers to all our questions lie within the pages of that small book. We as observers can only hope that one day a cryptographic genius will come along and decode it. Until then, we’ll have to just enjoy the mystery.