by Taylor Leonard
You don’t have to go far online to find seemingly unexplainable, downright creepy digital artifacts. A quick Google search, however, usually leads to some answers and explanations to help put the mind at ease. Such is not the case with the elusive entity known as Cicada 3301, which has been challenging the web with complex puzzles and code breaking challenges for the last four years, with the alleged goal of finding codebreakers worthy of the group’s attention. As of 2016 its origins and ultimate purpose, as well as the fate of “winners” remains a mystery.
Puzzle pieces are spread across the globe
Cicada 3301 releases new puzzles every year on January 4th (with the exception of 2014). If individuals are able to solve the first clue, traditionally via digital steganography, they’re led on a journey which involves collecting clues from real world locations. These may be in cities on the other side of the globe from the puzzle solver. Not only does this enforce dedication among solvers, it suggests Cicada 3301 consists of numerous people from around the planet working together.
Origins or ultimate purpose remain unknown
Despite continuing to release new puzzle challenges, Cicada 3301 remains unwilling to share any details about itself. The only thing the organization seems interested in is finding a new person to join every year. This suggests the group is not for profit or otherwise ultimately interested in publicity, as this would require eventually identifying themselves.
Winners have never come forward
Men and women who are able to solve the first series of puzzles are usually found posting their success publicly, name included. However, none of these people have ever maintained updates through to an actual end. Though it’s possible nobody has ever truly solved any of the puzzles, Cicada 3301 announces when they’ve found who they’ve been looking for, suggesting people do indeed solve the final series of clues. Despite this, the fate of solvers remains unknown.
Intelligence agency recruitment
CIA, NSA, MI6, Mossad, DARPA, etc. — name your intelligence organization and there is a theory about their involvement with Cicada 3301. It makes sense, to an extent, as the forms of code breaking and data analysis required to figure out the puzzles released by Cicada 3301 are exactly the kinds of things these agencies seek in potential talent. However, these agencies are inherently cagey, private, and lowkey. Public recruitment tools such as Cicada 3301 seem too flashy for the world’s leading intelligence organizations to be behind them.
Of course, Cicada 3301 could simply be an elaborate Internet hoax. The first puzzle was, after all, posted on 4chan’s infamous “Random” board dubbed /b/, where the majority of the web’s most famous lies and memes have been born. However, four years is a long time for such an ultimately pointless endeavor to endure without the truth coming out.
The most plausible theory regarding Cicada 3301 is that it represents an unidentified organization in need of the world’s most brilliant minds. To what end, who knows, but it’s possible this group may be interested in Anonymous-style online activity aimed at disrupting the digital activities of their targeted enemies.
Recently, a teenager claimed to have solved Cicada 3301, and found an “equally mysterious invitation at the end of the adventure.” Listen to the podcast below:
The Internet is in no short supply of weird, seemingly unexplainable content and activity. Most, with enough sleuthing, can eventually be traced to idiosyncrasies, illusions, harmless mischief, and old fashioned creativity. Some, however, endure the gauntlet of investigation only to remain as mysterious as ever. Such is the case with Cicada 3301. Its intentions, as well as the fate of those able to crack its clues, continue to be the Internet’s greatest ongoing unsolved mystery.