The internet mystery that’s confused cryptographers, codebreakers, and puzzle enthusiasts since it first appeared at the beginning of 2012 is back with a new instalment.
The Telegraph, which last November published a thorough piece on the story of what’s come to be known as the “Cicada 3301” mystery, today reported that a new round of the challenge appeared online over the weekend.
The Cicada 3301 puzzles apparently started out on the infamous 4chan /b/ messageboard in January two years ago, when a seemingly blank image with the following text appeared: "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."
That was enough to catch the attention of curious web users, who attempted to unravel the secrets of the cryptic post’s code over about a month. Another post from 3301 then appeared in January 2013, with a fresh challenge. The mysteries weren’t easily solved and took their followers from the depths of the dark net to locations in the physical world, through puzzles that led to puzzles that led to puzzles.
It seems that a very broad knowledge base is needed to get anywhere with them; as the Telegraph reported before the latest challenge, “So far, the hunt has required a knowledge of number theory, philosophy and classical music. An interest in both cyberpunk literature and the Victorian occult has also come in handy as has an understanding of Mayan numerology.” References to cicadas in images and sound files, however, are a common thread; hence the name.
The latest riddle appeared on January 6, almost exactly a year after the one before it. A post on a Wikia site dedicated to the mystery explained the image was found linked to from a Twitter account that had been previously used by Cicada. “Hello. Epiphany is upon you. Your pilgrimage has begun. Enlightenment awaits. Good luck,” it read, and was again signed 3301.
Users have already made headway with this new challenge. They wrote that running it through a steganography plugin revealed the trademark cicada image, and also used various techniques to uncover an unknown quotation, a link to a work by Ralph Waldo Emerson, some artwork by William Blake, and a lot of other things I’ll admit are really beyond me.
Of course, the biggest mystery of all is who’s behind the puzzles, and what they hope to achieve with them. That’s something that’s yet to be solved, at least publicly. Suggestions have ranged from government agencies such as the NSA, GCHQ, CIA or MI6 looking to recruit codebreakers, to a tech company seeking top-notch programmers, an ambitious PR campaign promoting a new product, or a shady organisation trying to establish some sort of new world order. Or, you know, just someone with too much time on their hands.