Inside the Internet's Most Mysterious Puzzle

Cicada 3301 is ... well, no one is entirely sure

By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff

Posted Nov 29, 2013 7:56 AM CST | Updated Dec 1, 2013 6:00 PM CST

(Newser) – It's a mystery cloaked in ... mystery. The Telegraph digs into Cicada 3301, but struggles a bit to describe exactly what it is—because no one is really sure. It's a sort of Internet challenge that's pretty unbelievable in its scope, designed to reel in and test the smartest of minds. The Telegraph introduces readers to it by way of 34-year-old Swede Joel Eriksson, who in January 2012 saw this message in an Internet forum:

  • "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."
That led Eriksson, and thousands of others across the globe, on a quest that has involved decryption programs, translated Mayan numbers, ciphers, hexadecimal characters, prime numbers, and GPS coordinates that led puzzlers to 14 cities, where they found a poster—emblazoned with the cicada image.

The clues eventually directed solvers to a website in the darknet that only a number of people were able to access before the site was shut down, returning only the line: "We want the best, not the followers." It's believed that handful got emails, and were perhaps being tasked with solving more puzzles on their own. Eriksson wasn't one of them, a disappointment he called his "biggest anticlimax." But then on Jan. 4, 2013, a new set of puzzles came; once again, only the early few made it past a certain point. The challenge will begin anew with fresh clues this Jan. 4. And yet, Chris Bell writes for the Telegraph, we are no closer to knowing the source, or fundamental purpose, of Cicada 3301." But as for the former, people have their ideas: "Depending on who you listen to, it’s either a mysterious secret society, a statement by a new political think tank, or an arcane recruitment drive by some quasi-military body" like the CIA. Eriksson's guess? Anonymous, or a similar group.

Writes Bell, Pictures of the cicada insect – reminiscent of the moth imagery in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs – became a common motif.
Writes Bell, "Pictures of the cicada insect – reminiscent of the moth imagery in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs – became a common motif."   (AP Photo/News & Record, H. Scott Hoffman)
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