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Cicada 3301: The Internet’s Most Mysterious Puzzle

Cicada 3301 is the one of the most elaborate puzzles ever created. The nickname was earned due to the puzzling and enigmatic nature of the three different sets of puzzles. Individuals who were able to decipher the puzzle required extensive knowledge in skills such as cryptography, data security, steganography, privacy and anonymity.

The reason behind the creation of the puzzle is still largely unknown. The two major theories are either it being a secretive group of people dedicated to finding highly qualified people to further internet privacy, however others equate the behavior of Cicada 3301 to that of a cult. A small portion of people believe Cicada 3301 to be a huge marketing scheme, however outside of Dark Web: Cicada 3301, a film based off the puzzles released in 2021, there has been no monetization of the puzzles.

Now, it is worth noting there have been countless attempts at replicating Cicada 3301. These fakes have attempted to push their own agenda to what they think Cicada 3301 is, however fortunately for us, it is possible to verify if a message is really from Cicada 3301. The last public and verified communication from Cicada 3301 occurred in April 2017. The message read, “Beware false paths. Always verify PGP signature from 7A35090F. 3301”.

A Pretty Good Privacy or PGP signature, is a program used to authenticate messages with a digital signature. Cicada 3301’s PGP signature is how people are able to verify if a message is truly from them.

The First Puzzle

The first puzzle commenced on January 5th, 2012, when an image was posted a paranormal blog website. The image contained a message which 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. 3301”.

The image contained a message which was found using a text extractor and a cipher decoder. The resulting message led to a website which looked like a dead end with the message, “Woops. Just decoys this way. Looks like you can’t guess how to get the message out.” However, using a steganography tool called OutGuess, a message relating to a book cipher pops up. The book cipher led the quest onto Reddit. The Reddit led to an image, which led to more encrypted text, which led to book, which led to a phone call. The phone call stated, “Very good. You have done well. There are three prime numbers associated with the original final.jpg image. 3301 is one of them. You will have to find the other two. Multiply all three of these numbers together and add a .com to find the next step. Good luck. Goodbye.” The final.jpg image had a size of 509×503 pixels, both prime numbers. Multiplying 509, 503 and 3301 yields 845145127. Following the instructions, people reached 845145127.com. The website is no longer available, but when it was up, the website displayed a cicada and a countdown.

This is when people started to take Cicada 3301 seriously. Many wrote this off as a scam or prank, but after seeing the intricacy of the puzzle, that theory was shut down.

The countdown was decoded using OutGuess to reveal a message which later morphed into coordinates around the world. This is the first time the puzzle went from purely internet based to going outside. The coordinates were spread across California, Australia, Hawaii, South Korea, Poland, and other major hubs. QR-codes were placed at these coordinates which led to cryptic messages which led to a .onion website. The puzzle now shifts into the dark web. Participants had to use a TOR browser to get into the dark web. After decrypting several messages using a diverse array of methods, a MIDI puzzle was introduced. This puzzle contained a piece of music which in reality was a musical cryptogram. After analyzing this piece of music, the end was achieved.

It is reasonable to assume that some people made it to the end considering we know all this information. Outside of a few unverifiable leaked emails and testimonials, it is unknown to what happened to these people. A month after a the first wave of people figured out the puzzle, a verified image from Cicada 3301 read, “Hello. We have now found the individuals we sought. Thus our month-long journey ends. For now. Thank you for your dedication and effort. If you were unable to complete the test, or did not receive an email, do not despair. There will be more opportunities like this one. Thank you all. 3301.”

Nobody heard from Cicada 3301 until January 2013 and that is when the second puzzle started.

The Second and Third Puzzles

The second and third puzzles followed along the lines of the first puzzle. Cryptic messages, music, images, and more were the norm in both puzzles. The third puzzle started on January 2014, so it was reasonable for people to believe that there would be a forth puzzle on January 2015.

However, nothing but fakes showed up. Ever since Cicada 3301 has essentially disappeared barring the false paths message. Many believe that the leaders of the group were either arrested or gone into hiding.

The End?

The first two puzzle have been solved. But to this day, the third puzzle has not been solved. It is still possible for someone to come along and solve the third puzzle. The third puzzle featured a 58 page book about Cicada 3301, all written in code. In six years, only 2 pages have been decoded.

If Cicada is truly gone, we may never know what the true purpose was of Cicada 3301 and what happened to all the winners. But, it is possible for someone to come along and decipher the book and Cicada 3301 to come out of hiding. Cicada 3301 might not be done yet.

Mehul Chaudhari is a senior at Redmond High School. He enjoys solving puzzles, programming, and sports. In his free time, you can find him at the gym or watching Netflix.

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