Who was behind “Cicada 3301” and what did they want?

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In January 2012 an image (pictured above) appeared on a board of 4chan, the site that’s (in)famous for being a digital playground for hackers and the birthplace the hacktivist group Anonymous.

For good or for ill, though, some of the brightest digital minds are to be found loitering on this site, so this message caught their interest. It was digital steganography — the concealment of secret information within a digital file — and was the first test in a puzzle that would draw in some of the brightest minds around the world.

Hackers, cryptologists, numerologists, coders and more all began to solve the series of complicated online and offline challenges. Hundreds of thousands of people are thought to have taken part. Many believed it was a recruitment ploy by the CIA, MI6 or NSA. But as a former president of the American Cryptogram Association, pointed out, “Starting the puzzle on 4chan might attract people with less respect for authority than the NSA or CIA would want working inside.”

Others claimed the people behind it were involved with Bitcoin, Wikileaks, Anonymous, terrorist groups, cybermercenaries, GCHQ, Mossad, the Illuminati, the NWO, an alternate reality game, a computer science college campaign, Google, Facebook, or “just one lonely neckbeard”.

The challenges that were set by 3301 involved cryptography, number theory, steganography as well as knowledge of classical literature, art, computer skills, philosophy, music, and more.

It referenced obscure pre-Christian, Welsh manuscripts and the Anglo- Saxon rune alphabet, and the cicada insect was a recurring motif. At one point there was a number to call to hear a recorded message, while GPS coordinates led people to more codes posted on telegraph poles in locations around the globe. It was the toughest scavenger hunt ever devised. The final clue led to an address on the TOR Darknet, and after an unspecified number of users had visited, the website shut down with the message: “We want the best, not the followers.”

Soon after a statement from 3301 was posted on Reddit: “Hello. We have now found the individuals we sought. Thus our month-long journey ends. For now.” The rest of us were left to wonder who was behind it and what it was they really wanted. Then last year, one of the private messages that the first few received from 3301 was leaked.

In part, it claimed: “We are an international group we have no name we have no symbol we have no membership rosters we do not have a public website and we do not advertise ourselves we are a group of individuals who have proven ourselves much like you have by completing this recruitment contest and we are drawn together by common beliefs, a careful reading of the texts used in the contest would have revealed some of these beliefs that tyranny and oppression of any kind must end that censorship is wrong and that privacy is an inalienable right.

“You are undoubtedly wondering what it is that we do we are much like a *think tank* in that our primary focus is on researching and developing techniques to aid the ideas we advocate liberty privacy security you have undoubtedly heard of a few of our past projects and if you choose to accept membership we are happy to have you on-board to help with future projects.”

And then a message appeared on the PasteBin site claiming to be from a former member of the group called Andrew Auernheimer (aka Weev), a notorious hacker who was sentenced to 41 months in prison for hacking AT&T. He warned people to stay away from Cicada 3301, calling them a “dangerous organisation.” (Not least due to their disregard for punctuation, we imagine.)

He went on to say the collective was “Established initially by a group of professional military officers, diplomats, and academics who were dissatisfied with the direction of the world” and that the “organisation is in no way linked to any military, or the government of any country. However, they recruit often among high government officials to gain more power.”

This could be a hoax (Weev is also an infamous troll), but why would 3301 recruit such talent if there is no purpose? Perhaps they are behind some security issues we’ve been reading about in the news. Or perhaps we’ll soon see their true aims…

For Esquire magazine, November 2014

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