“THE MOST ELABORATE PUZZLE IN THE INTERNET AGE”
On January 4, 2012, an image was posted on 4chan’s /b/ and /x/ boards. The image contained text challenging those who read it to find the message hidden within it. Users were quickly able to find the message by opening the image into a text editor program, and from there the puzzle solvers were led to clue after clue, including physical signs posted in various cities across the world. After about a month, Cicada 3301 announced they had found the people they were looking for.
The organization would publish follow-up puzzles in 2013 and 2014. As far as anyone outside of the organization knows, no one was able to fully complete the 2014 puzzle, which revolves around deciphering the Liber Primus, a “sacred book” distributed by Cicada 3301 supposedly containing the final round of clues. Puzzles published online after 2014 did not contain Cicada 3301’s PGP signature, and thus are not official follow-ups.
The puzzles have a focus on data security, cryptography, and especially steganography, which is when a file is concealed within another file, such as the case with the first clue ever published by the group.
Given the mysterious nature of the Cicada 3301 puzzles, it is only natural that people would want to know what kind of organization would be behind them. As of now, no one has figured out for sure who is behind the puzzles or what their actual purpose is, but that uncertainty has led to much speculation.
The only clues anyone has to go on are the puzzles themselves and the PGP-signed messages from Cicada 3301. The first message from the group, which contains their stated purpose of finding “highly intelligent individuals,” along with the fact that when physical clues were used, they appeared at about the same time in so many distant locations, has led most people to speculate that the group must be large and well-funded.
Some speculation has been more specific, with some assuming the puzzles are recruitment tools for a government agency, such as the NSA, CIA, or MI6. Others have guessed that they might be part of a recruitment process for the Freemasons or an unspecified cyber mercenary group.
Other theories are more sinister, with some claiming that the Cicada 3301 puzzles must be attempts to recruit for a cult, or even simply an attempt to make people comfortable with occult ideas, due mostly to certain clues that reference occult writers such as Blavatsky and Crowley.
Still others have suggested that the puzzles are only an ARG, or alternate reality game, and there is no deeper motive. However, this is unlikely, because no individual or group has taken credit for the ARG or attempted to monetize it in any way. The secrecy surrounding what happens with those who have actually solved the puzzles also works against this theory, as there would be no reason to hide the fate of the solvers if this was merely an ARG. There is also the matter of the scope of the puzzles, especially the physical clues. While not impossible, it is highly unlikely that a person or group running an ARG would go to those lengths.