Cicada 3301: unravelling the mystery of web's greatest puzzle

Jan 7, 2014

The game that may or may not be a recruiting aid for the CIA has kept the world guessing for two years

IT IS called Cicada 3301 and has been described as "the internet's most enduring puzzle". But what is it exactly? Who or what is behind it? And what happens to people who solve its ferociously difficult puzzles correctly? Here are five key questions about a genuine internet mystery.

What is it?

Cicada 3301 is a complex set of puzzles that has appeared on the internet three times. Its first appearance was on 5 January, 2012 and two more instalments have appeared at precise 12 month intervals. The puzzles focus heavily on data security, cryptography and steganography (the science of hiding information). The stated aim of each puzzle is to "recruit intelligent individuals". Unlike many web 'mysteries' it seems that no-one is trying to make money from Cicada 3301.

What form does it take?

The game is played out online and in the real world. The online component has been delivered via forums and a Twitter account that pumps out seemingly random numbers. QR codes (barcodes that can be read by mobile phones) associated with Cicada 3301 have been found taped to lamp posts in Russia and Spain and participants were told to dial a phone number which "played out eerie audio clues to callers," says The Independent.

How hard is it to solve?

Very, very hard. So far, writes the Daily Telegraph's Chris Bell, Cicada 3301 has required a knowledge of "number theory, philosophy and classical music". And that's not all. "An interest in both cyberpunk literature and the Victorian occult has also come in handy, as has an understanding of Mayan numerology." Some people treat it as fun – an advanced version of Sudoku – says Bell, while others have become obsessed.

Who is behind it?

That's the question that has everyone scratching their heads. It has been suggested that Cicada 3301 is an "elaborate marketing campaign or perhaps a recruiting tool for the likes of MI6 or the CIA to find bright young hackers," says The Independent.

How long will the puzzle run?

Like most things about Cicada 3301, no-one is sure. There is a suggestion – and it's only a suggestion – that the third instalment may be the last because it promises would-be cryptographers that "enlightenment awaits," says The Independent. 

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