On 4th January 2012, a message on the infamous imageboard 4chan set a small corner of the internet ablaze.
Signed “3301”, it began: “We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test.”
The denizens of 4chan didn’t know what to make of it. Was it a marketing tactic? A recruitment scheme for some tech firm? An elaborate joke?
“I looked at it and said, ‘That looks dumb, I’m out,’” says one Canadian user, known as Nox Populi. Soon he would be as hooked as anyone.
Beginning with an image hidden in the original post, 3301 led its followers through a series of puzzles involving cryptography, steganography, book codes, Caesar ciphers, and a veritable merry dance of arcane knowledge.
Clues progressed in a complicated chain that seemed to have been in place long before the first message even dropped. The majority were found across websites. At one point solvers came across a list of coordinates and had to travel to one of five different countries – from South Korea to Poland – to retrieve their next clue: a poster with an image of an insect, the cicada, and a QR code leading to a new challenge.
The trail seemed almost mystical, full of references to Enlightenment, the Holy Grail, cryptic messages such as “the key has always been in front of your eyes” (a sentence only marginally less annoying than, “It’ll be in the last place you look”).
It became, for some, a temporary obsession. But after just one month, the hunt was over; the mysterious group, now nicknamed Cicada by its followers, announced they had found their chosen few. Game over. Ball taken. Gone home.
Only that wasn’t the end. Where once there were no more than a hundred dedicated solvers, today over 21,000 people follow the community on Reddit and several thousand frequent its Discord group, searching for its answers. As Nox remarks, “The size has been… just a ridiculous change.”
So who were the people behind it? And what, in the name of a potentially masonic conspiracy, did they want?
Over time a picture has built up. In a leaked email received by a winner, 3301 describes itself as a “think tank” formed around its members’ shared belief “that censorship is wrong and that privacy is an inalienable right”. Their aim: “researching and developing techniques” to further these causes.
Virginian coder Marcus Wanner, who was just 15 when he passed the Cicada test, has shed some light on what the mysterious organisation hoped to achieve. Upon completing the final task, he and the other successful candidates were invited to an anonymous chat server and put to work creating software. Their project was a so-called “dead man’s switch” that could be used by whistle-blowers to release information if they were imprisoned or killed.
However, things did not go according to plan. By seeking out “individuals”, and releasing statements such as “we want the best, not the followers”, 3301 had ended up not with a team, but with a group of strong personalities who couldn’t collaborate. It didn’t help, as long-standing Cicada solver Taiwwo remarks, that they were asked to do something unprecedented – given a great wallop of freedom and precious little guidance.
“Everybody’s gonna have their own ideas. At the end of the day, you’re either working by yourself or you’re arguing,” he says.
Over time, coding slowed down, members lost motivation and the group’s numbers dwindled, until just Wanner and one other remained. A year later, the server was quietly taken down.
Nox Populi had been quickly convinced of Cicada’s validity by Wanner, whom he knew through Alternate Reality Games [interactive narratives full of puzzles]. He undertook the challenge in 2013, won, received his invitation from 3301, and was waiting to be enrolled in the group.
“The implication was that we were going to be joining to work on something, but they said, ‘We’ll need a little bit of time to organise that,’” he explains. That was when Cicada disappeared without warning.
Speculation and rumour were rife: 3301 was secretly a cult; 3301 were secretly criminals. With the benefit of hindsight, Nox has his own, less radical theory. The dates line up with the Edward Snowden leaks, which made everyone in cryptography paranoid, searching for backdoors or signs of NSA surveillance. Couple that with the project’s lack of results, and it’s possible 3301 just decided to throw in the towel.
“It turns out that this is actually a really bad way to get people to work together,” Nox reflects. It seemed Cicada had failed.
The mystery then deepened. Cicada surfaced for one final flurry of testing in 2014, and the winners received not invitations, but a digital book of intricate runes entitled: the Liber Primus. Copies were quickly shared with the wider community – it was the largest puzzle they had faced yet.
“There’d never been anything like this,” Nox says.
It was the most difficult, too. Whereas everything before it had been solved in a month or so of dedicated work, the Liber Primus has proven formidable. In six years, only two of its 58 pages have been decoded. And 3301 has vanished once more.
Their very last message, three years ago, simply served to disown the copycats and scammers who had emerged in their absence and were trying to profit financially from fans’ desire for answers. Then silence.
Yet instead of dying down, the community surrounding Cicada has grown larger than ever. For some, the goal remains the same: crack the case. They believe that 3301 is still out there waiting, and they might have a chance to join up if they can prove themselves. One user, who wished to remain anonymous, says, “I do think there is another flag to be captured. I’m just hoping to someday work on privacy tools with like-minded individuals.”
Many have stuck it out since the beginning. Taiiwo, like Nox, has been searching for Cicada for seven years and has had his fair share of setbacks. But each time, the cycle resets, the initial despondency is “completely dwarfed by the idea that you might have another solution to try”.
The group has become used to a never-ending series of false leads, excited newcomers claiming to have the answer. As traditional methods continue to founder, a few have devised esoteric solutions, searching for a deeper meaning behind 3301’s mysterious messages or looking at the hunt as some sort of a spiritual journey.
“There are so many elements to the puzzle; there are so many different things that you can try,” Taiiwo explains. “When you have another idea, you’re like… this could be it.”
Others are less focused on the elusive end goal. One member, username Puck, says that once he stopped working alone and joined the online community, the process became more important than reaching the finish.
“At that point, I realised Cicada wasn’t just a puzzle for me to try and solve, it was a hobby. I’m not solving to get a response from Cicada, I’m solving for the fun of it,” he says.
The majority of new members are drawn in by the mystery, knowing little to nothing about privacy, security or cryptography. With the prize eternally out of reach, the solvers have started teaching each other, rather than competing. They disappear down the rabbit hole and come out with experience they can take forward.
“We have a number of people who are going to be university graduates, in crypto, in computing sciences, that are there because of our little Cicada community. And that’s a fascinating feeling… having that impact on someone,” Nox says. “It’s one of the things that doesn’t get talked about enough, I think, with Cicada: they made one of the best vessels for learning that I’ve ever seen.”
Did 3301 know their puzzles had the potential to build a community where so many like-minded people could learn from one another? As with so much about this story, there’s no way to be sure. But it’s significant that in later years the puzzles were designed to require cooperation. The path couldn’t be walked alone. Perhaps Cicada was trying to make good on its earlier mistake?
Nox believes the Liber Primus was never intended to be solved. In his view that hardly matters. While the community that’s formed around the Cicada puzzles continues working away, the ideas and skills their creators sought to promote are kept alive.
“What they were trying to do was get a group of like-minded individuals with a certain set of skills together and working on something,” Nox says. “And if the Liber Primus never gets solved… that’s what they’ve made.”
That said, he’d be the first one back in the saddle, should Cicada ever re-emerge.
“It would be very unfortunate for everything else I’m trying to do in my life right now,” he laughs. “It would all get thrown to the wayside.”