back to article Cicada 3301: The web's toughest and most creepy crypto-puzzle is BACK

The internet is full of daft things. Animated cat GIFs, stupid headlines, NSA spies, etc. But the online world isn't just fields of mindless dreck. For instance, you could always take a crack at the web's toughest crypto-puzzle: the ever-baffling Cicada 3301. Appearing each year since 2012, these strange series of challenges …

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  1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

    What do you make of this fiendish challenge?

    Boring - it smells like the Illuminati rebooted.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What do you make of this fiendish challenge?

      "it smells like the Illuminati rebooted."

      Now there's someone who doesn't know a Thetan when he sees one.

    2. Vociferous

      Re: What do you make of this fiendish challenge?

      W̼̹̝͞͠E̡͍͉̩̙̬͖͘͡ͅ ̴̖̙͍̼̻̀D̶̲̥̳̪O̸̢͈̪͙̹̰͇͕͞ ̶̩̙̼͜N̢̥͕̙ͅO̯͕̜̺͘Ţ̧̼̗̦̹̙̣̹̫ͅ ͉̹̻̳̕D͇̖͖̩̪̹͓̕͠O̜̳͇͙͖̟̘͇ ̷̯͓̼͓̮̙̙̀͘"̷̟̮̘̲̭̦̥̯͞Ṛ̺̩̝͈͇̕Ę҉̜̤̺B̡͏͔̠͚̫̦ͅO̡̮̩͡O̤̪̟̭̱̟̫̱T̻͔͖̹̘̥̱́S͍͍͡"̷̧̺͖̲̮̥͝

      * but we have a special on weddings and bar mitzvahs!

      1. WraithCadmus

        Re: What do you make of this fiendish challenge?

        Oh bloody Zalgo-text, I hate the way this abuse of ͏o͠f̕ ̢u̢nico̢de̵ f͢eat͝urȩs͡ k̴͝e̕͟͟ȩp̢҉̧s҉ ̛d͏̛͞e͜͞sc̛͢͞ra͞҉t҉ìn҉͢g̕ ͘͞͏m̡̧̛̛͢y͜͞͞͡ ͝͏̕͝f̀̀҉è̵҉e͏̀͜b́͞l̡͢e͢͟ ̷̷҉́m̛͝o̸̧̡r͘͢t͝͝á͘͢͡l̸̸̛̀̀ ͞f̢́̕͠l͘e͟͠s̴̛͡h͜͢͡. B̢҉̱̳̫͞eͅw̸͉͈̣̬̭͓̳̞a̪̟r̷̳̀͢e̠͕̕͢ ̯̻̳̪̰̪̙́͡t̪͖̱̼̻̙͞h̛̳̠͙͉̖̟ę͏̲̙̠̺̜ ̸̢̝͍̟̳̭̤͚͘m̧̩̝͉͇̞ạ͚ͅn͍͔̺̬̻̩̹͝͡f̛̰̜̰͚̖̟̱͖͟ͅr͉̯̯̞̹͇̖̣̕͟o͇͚̹͚m̵̖͇̙m̡͎̲̻͉̬̮̞̩͔ą̰̙̮̮̫͇͈̫̀r̴̬͎̖͔̯̺̰͍̰͘͜s̷͉̜͕̣͝͡.

  2. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    It reminds me of crop circles.

  3. Christian Berger Silver badge

    I sure hope it's a prank

    It would be a shame to waste people who can decode such things on intelligence agency work.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why?

    Dunno, but I'm not sold on the 'recruitment' angle.

    Whatever the purpose, it seems to me that it will have the (maybe unintended) effect of providing a training exercise resulting in a lot of people learning information-hiding skills, whether they win or not.

    Things being as they are these days, if I did solve it I'd be inclined to keep it to myself.

    1. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

      Re: Why?

      No, the NSA (or one of their competitors) is not recruiting; just trying to locate its enemies.

    2. Christian Berger Silver badge

      Re: Why?

      Maybe it's just a way to learn about interesting people. Kinda like a fun public game you play to get in touch with other people with similar interests.

      As you mention, it does have educational side-effects.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why?

      Unless you were following the trail of breadcrumbs entirely via tor or other proxy, you can't be sure the puzzle setters don't already know the identity of those they are interested in, even if you did decide to keep the solution to yourself.

      And shame on the Reg for trying to blag the answer. Cheaters never prosper. :-)

    4. dan1980

      Re: Why?

      @JustaKOS

      ". . .if I did solve it I'd be inclined to keep it to myself."

      I don't know how things will pan-out this year, but last year's puzzle requiredco-operation at one point*. From what I know of it, the whole thing requires co-operation from a community of like-minded individuals.

      It's certainly a test, but what the reward is is unknown. I can only assume that it is something very desirable for those with the abilities to get that far as there is next to no information out there from the later, individualised steps of the process. From that, the only possible conclusions are that:

      * - The 'reward' was near-universally desirable for those who got that far.

      * - The initiators won enough respect that the participants voluntarily decided to keep quiet.

      * - The initiators made credible threats that scared the participants into silence.

      I suspect it's a combination of the first two.

      * - Well, it wasn't absolutely essential, but clues were placed on posters distributed across the US and the world, so if you didn't have access or resources to visit enough (5) of them, you would have had no chance - no matter how talented you were.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @dan1980 - Re: Why?

        I'm inclined to agree with you that it is probably a combination of the first two points.

        I'm more and more leaning towards the conclusion that it is mainly being done for fun - rather like a Treasure Hunt, where the prize is really incidental to the fun of the chase.

  5. Mike Banahan
    Black Helicopters

    I'm with @JustaKOS here - who says that the puzzle-setter's motives are benign?

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Alien

      Abduction?

      As you arrive at the rendezvous, you notice that the weird people ... OH MY GOD, GREYS!

  6. dssf

    Some possibiities...

    Some possibilities:

    Crewman/Captain/Admiral Braxton: Why? SOMEhow, Janeway is violating time travel sanctions again...

    Leoben: Why? Here, he states: " To know the face of God is to know madness... I see the universe. I see the patterns. I see the foreshadowing that precedes every moment, of every day. It's all there. I see it, and you don't. And I have a surprise for you. I have something to tell you about the future. ... But, we have to see this through to the end."

    NSA: May the Lords of Kobol bless and scold their souls... They are seeking the best and brightest to either clone or hyper-sleep preserve due to an impending arrival of an EKCB (Earth-Killing Celestial Body), not for Human RESurrection, but PRESURrection (pre resurrection)

    NSA-within-NSA faction that spawned Section 31: Why? Dr Julian Bashir and Chief O'Brien finally dumped their wives and wanted to play Command And Conquer The Timeline in a Holosuite during one of their mutually-facilitative hydraulic dreams....

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: Some possibiities...

      amanfrommass, is that you?

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Re: Some possibiities...

        a man from dark mass, clearly.

        1. Pookietoo
          Coat

          Re: a man from dark mass

          Massachusetts when it's late at night?

          1. Jan 0

            Re: Massachusetts when it's late at night?

            I had the radio on. <> <> Radio On!

      2. dan1980

        Re: Some possibiities...

        @A Non e-mouse

        Far too literate - the use of punctuation alone precludes that possibility. The paragraph on the NSA, however . . .

        No, just a nerd. (And there's nothing wrong with that, least of all here.)

  7. David Pollard

    It's a plea for help

    Working at GCHQ and NSA may be pretty awful for anyone with imagination, and also jolly boring most of the time. These coded messages are actually a plea for help for someone to write something a bit more challenging than the usual run-of-the-mill stuff they have to decode from trrrrsts, drug dealers, pr0n addicts and politicians.

  8. This post has been deleted by its author

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    http://www.telephone-lodge.org.uk/

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Why are the MASONIC lodges with connection to the TELECOMMUNICATIONS industry?

      A baffled person demands to know!

  10. stucs201
    Alien

    What can you say about chocolate covered manhole covers

    The problem with weird stuff like this it that are you sure you actually want to draw the attention of those behind it?

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: What can you say about chocolate covered manhole covers

      Oh, kudos, sir.

      And remember what happened to the chocolate covered manhole cover?

  11. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Its simple

    Its a recruitment drive

    but not by the alphabet soup government agencies, or by a commecial contractor

    Its for the latest Evil overlord project.

    If you can crack the puzzle, then you'll offered a job for life* implementing the evil overlord's plan for world domination, after which you'll be offered part of the world to live in and rule.**

    Boris

    * unless you screw up in which case, the sharks are used to large regular solid meals or the plucky secret agent succedes in stopping your boss in which case , you'll burn to death when the volcano explodes

    ** except scotland.... because theres nothing worth ruling there :)

    1. Gerhard den Hollander

      Re: Its simple

      even if you screw up, it's still a job for life .... just a very short one ...

    2. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Its simple

      >Its a recruitment drive but not by the alphabet soup government agencies, or by a commecial contractor [...] Its for the latest Evil overlord project.

      Let's assume that's true. Can anyone comment on the how the traditional Three Letter Agencies might fare at deciphering this puzzle, if they haven't already? Genuine question.

  12. Eugene Crosser
    Pint

    There are not many people in the world who can pull this off

    and most of them know each other, I think. Their effort just might be sponsored by an organisation for which some of them work, but I think it's more likely that they decided to do it for fun, to amuse themselves and to recruit like-minded people into their circle.

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: There are not many people in the world who can pull this off

      OBh bulZl. TeTn /b/TastarEds wiEth anB IRC Gchann1el an3d acczess tro Gooagle cgan "pgull vthis boff",a andv almoast cetrtainnly haave. Ibt's nyot negarly bas dibfficuxlt to! creaGte puuzzlesv likef thisv as ift is yto svolve rthem x-- anvd as yfor yrecruhitingz, youv can abet thnat whgat thve win-ner gfets igs an hoffers to sjoin sin creating the next puzzle.

  13. Mage Silver badge
    Alien

    Aliens recruiting

    c.f. Last Starfighter.

    1. BFG

      Re: Aliens recruiting

      Or Mercury Rising

  14. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    Begin your journey

    It will set you free....

    Anyone remember how that journey ended?

  15. jubtastic1

    For fun.

    I'm going with:

    If you win you get invited to join the club and help construct next years puzzle, which most people would accept as you'd really have to enjoy this sort of puzzle to complete it.

    1. Thomas Steven 1

      Re: For fun.

      A lone funman?

  16. Don Jefe

    There was a book, forgot the title and author, where something very similar took place and it all turns out to be a marketing campaign.

    The hook was that the players were being heavily manipulated and herded, but they believed it was their cleverness and abilities that were allowing them to solve the puzzles. The reality was that in the process of solving the clues they were being constantly exposed to marketing messages but they didn't realize it.

    The creators of the puzzle were charging their clients for ad space inside the puzzle with the most expensive spots being nearer the end of the puzzle. The premise is genius as marketing you don't recognize as such is extremely valuable. Additionally, if you're in a state of concentration looking for little details your brain will see and retain the marketing message more readily even if you don't realize it.

    1. Adam 1 Silver badge

      Highly unlikely.

      Images posted on Youtwitface tend to be legitimate. It is probably a link to the new Kony 2014 or something

    2. Dave 126 Silver badge

      >The premise is genius as marketing you don't recognize as such is extremely valuable.

      If that is true, the chances are that the adverts are on the forums that comment on this puzzle, rather than amongst the breadcrumbs of the puzzle itself. Why? Because (I assume) far more people are following the progress of this treasure hunt than are actually participating in it.

      There is still the cost/benefit analysis to be done by the marketing team... for the cost of setting up this puzzle (okay, probably far less than creating and airing a TV advert) they want in return either lots of eyeballs, or to market to a specific (self-selecting group). You only want to advertise to a select group if they are a, much more likely than your average punter to buy your product, b, if they are very rich (higher margins), c, you have a way of getting your message under the viewer's radar (as you suggest), or a combination of the above.

    3. aregross

      Ah-Ha! So it's like Little Orphan Annie's decoder ring!

    4. aregross

      Ah-Ha! So it's a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring then?!?

  17. Gerhard den Hollander

    recruiting

    I would still go for a recruiting job ... kinda like how the brit intel agency in WWII found people who were good at crosswords , and used that as a selection starting point.

    Spy agencies need peole who you can tell, we know that messages are being swapped through the XXXXX messageboard, without them going ``yeah, Duh .. it's a message board, what do you expect '' and in stead find the steganosaurs

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: recruiting

      Crosswords and Intelligence Agencies.

      There is that lovely story of a leading WW2-era newspaper crossword compiler being a master at a boarding school. The school was based near an American base in England. The security agencies were concerned because words associated with the secret planning of D-Day were appearing as answers in the crosswords this school master set. The agencies had to consider if this was coincidence, conspiracy, or if boys at the school picked up on words being used by the nearby US servicemen and repeated them in the school, thus subconsciously influencing the crossword compiler.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Try solving the meta-puzzle

    For me the most interesting aspect is that no one has heard from any of the supposed 'winners' and there seems to be a remarkable lack of information about who they are. The one guy who documented his path supposedly was 'too late' but I would expect at least one of these people to brag to friends, family, lovers, colleagues etc. Surely they can't all be basement dwellers.

    The only plausible explanation I can think of off-hand is that everyone got the 'you're too late' message.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Try solving the meta-puzzle

      The only plausible explanation I can think of off-hand is that everyone got the 'you're too late' message.

      Or "You're clearly too clever for us to have you wandering around in the wild!" message.

  19. Tommy Pock

    It's certainly very clever.

    It's a very effective way of temporarily getting intelligent people off of 4chan

    1. Captain DaFt

      Re: It's certainly very clever.

      "It's a very effective way of temporarily getting intelligent people off of 4chan"

      I thought browsing 4chan already did that.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: It's certainly very clever.

      if you browse /s you can get yourself off on 4chan very effectively....

  20. This post has been deleted by its author

  21. Eddy Ito Silver badge

    Selective alien diners

    They pay two million brozgnats (alien money) to partake in an annual limited seating gourmet meal which consists of the "winning" human contestant. The contest is supposed to self select the smartest, and therefore tastiest, human available. The cicada connection? Simple, cicadas are descendants of the first alien visitors to arrive on earth but they didn't have an adequate supply of humans to eat on the first trip so they devolved into the tiny insect we know. The original alien species is much larger but looks surprisingly similar and the picture isn't our familiar insect it's actually the head alien chef that prepares meal.

  22. Cameron Colley

    It's the boppers from the moon.

    They want to find people with skills so they can cut their brain up and digitize them piece by piece.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's just a straightforward job interview...

    ...for the Parallax Corporation.

    Leviticus 16:8

  24. SVV Silver badge

    And the correct answer is....

    That without any evidence to go on, every theory advanced so far as to the provenance and purpose of this puzzle is simply wild speculation.

    Boring, but true. Although I'd be pleased if the answer after a further series of tortuous redirections was "ever get the feeling that you've been cheated?".

    Even better if every "congratulations, you have solved the puzzle" message turned out not to be true, but contained even more puzzles and they just kept going on forever, keeping plenty of hackers busy chasing their tails rather than devoting their energies to more harmful pursuits. The "keep going, the prize is $200 million" message at the 33rd level of redirection is a particularly good ruse in order to achieve this.

  25. Duffy Moon

    Airlines

    Given the fact that clues are all over the world, perhaps it's a ploy by airlines to get people to buy more tickets?

    Not a great return on their time/effort investment, but then again people who can afford to follow all the clues probably fly First Class.

  26. bozoid

    Five bucks says the final link leads to a message that says "BESURETODRINKYOUROVALTINE".

  27. DougS Silver badge

    Useless as a "job interview"

    What if I followed along what the others posted about their work, even though I was unable to solve anything on my own, and then the very last puzzle happened to be something that hit my field of specialty (for example, for certain people it might be a literary reference so obscure it will never be found on Google) No one person is capable of solving this, and the person who was first to finish may have had little or nothing to do with the rest of the solution. What's the point, other than to prove they have a lot of time on their hands to keep up to date on the puzzle so they're in the right place at the right time to be the first to the end?

    I think everyone gets the "someone beat you to it" message, and some Internet troll who is a slightly more malicious version of the guy who writes xkcd gets a good laugh watching so many people putting effort into solving his puzzle.

    Do we even know the entire path is laid out prior to the first message? So long as he stays a few steps ahead the "perpetrator" could make this game last as long as he wants. When he gets bored he makes the next clue point to the "someone beat you to it" website.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Useless as a "job interview"

      Who says they aren't looking for people clever enough to let other people do the work for them?

    2. Old Handle

      Re: Useless as a "job interview"

      In fact the accounts of past puzzles make it fairly clear the whole thing is not laid out ahead of time. For instance more than once they arrived at a .onion site displaying hexadecimal digits with a new digit being added every few minutes until it reached its final length after about a day.

      This seems to suggest they only started it once someone got close, as it would have already reached full length if it started at the same time the first clue was given out, although it's conceivable that it was automatically triggered the first time someone visited the site. But it also looks like a pretty good stalling tactic for someone who's at least partly making this stuff up as they go along.

      Another explanation for the delays would be to stop one person from getting too far ahead, though if it truly is a recruitment tool, it's unclear why they would want to do that.

    3. dan1980

      Re: Useless as a "job interview"

      @DougS

      From what I have read, that doesn't seem to be the way of it. Yes, there are cultural references, such as books and a painting but these are always tied into cryptography. The non-IT parts are likely a test of information gathering as they are not so complex as to require knowledge of a particular work.

      With the painting mosaic from this year's puzzle, it seems that the composition of the image is largely unimportant* and the pseudo-masonic theme of protractors could be a simple bit of misdirection as the relevant part was the data steganographically hidden in the image.

      The resulting message clearly pointed at a book cipher so from there it was just a matter of finding the correct work. If you search for in writer transcendental in Google, all of the top five results will give Emerson as the most important of these writers and several list "Self-Reliance" as amongst his most important works. Indeed one of the sites - http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/amtrans.htm gives it as a link near the top and I saw it just scanning the page.

      Even more specifically, searching for writer transcendental private man -meditation -meditate gives this direct link to the correct work as the very first result.

      From what I have seen of last year's challenge, once people got to the final stages, there were tasks to be carried out by individuals and these tasks were decidedly IT-based, such that should someone have reached that point by just hanging around the people doing the real work, they would quickly have been weeded out.

      In addition, as multiple people were needed to get to those final stages (as you recognise) I don't think it's supposed to be a first-past-the-post affair.

      Further, while it's entirely possible that it is a prank, rather a lot of effort has gone into it so it stands to reason that there is some pay-off for the organisers. That's one of the reasons that a recruitment/membership test is the prevailing theory.

      * - As the current puzzle is ongoing, the painting may prove to be relevant to a latter stage but, given the strong infosec focus, it seems unlikely that the organisers are targeting Art History majors.

  28. jake Silver badge

    One word.

    Whatever.

  29. Winkypop Silver badge
    Alert

    tl;dnr

    Who's got time?

    There are so many cat videos to see.

  30. Tommy Pock

    This is just a stop-gap until the next-gen Super Mario Cicada 3301

  31. Thomas 4

    I know who's behind it

    It's pretty obvious. Baffling logic, mad conspiracy theories, random locations all over the world, well funded:

    John McAfee

  32. gerdesj Silver badge

    Everyone gets the too late message

    If it was recruiting for biz then that firm would probably have de-cloaked by now to a mediagasm of ridiculous proportions.

    My money is on a security agency and that everyone gets a too late message at the end. Some finishers might be approached however.

    If you have rather a lot of access to internet traffic (raw, logs, and metatdata) then working out who is a real solver of the riddles and who is merely following on would be trivial.

    Cheers

    Jon

  33. kain preacher Silver badge

    It's aliens searching for signs of intelligence.

  34. John X Public
    Trollface

    You forgot the "Intellectual Masturbation" option

    ... to attract the other wankers

  35. Allan George Dyer Silver badge
    Coat

    A cunning way to entrap enquiring crypto-experts by an international terrorist organisation.

  36. DropBear Silver badge
    Big Brother

    Be careful what you wish for...

    One problem with this sort of approach is that "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member" either. Granted, I'm not exactly in the target audience here. But if I were, I'd feel distinctly uncomfortable painting a big-ass bullseye target on myself with my own hand...

  37. Art Retro
    Holmes

    Mr. Stephenson, Who else?

    Cryptonomicon...The Baroque Cycle...Cicada 3301.

    Surely another prime as a result of multiplying two others.

    Neil Stephenson I'd bet.

    I'll be looking for Diamond-Age and Snow Crash hints next.

    Probably a virtual meet-up on Second life.

    //

  38. JimmyPage Silver badge
    Boffin

    Desmond Bagley "Running Blind"

    The premise of this book was an electronic thingamijig which the US & UK had fed information to the USSR about, claiming it was part of a revolutionary radar system which could see down to the ground, and over the horizon.

    In reality, it was a circuit board with every single odd and anomalous electronic effect designed it. (At one point in the book the protagonist asks an engineer to examine it, and the engineer is baffled by it's behaviour).

    The idea was to let the Russkies "intercept" the component when a jealous UK had supposedly stolen it from the yanks. And then waste many man-years of their expertise trying to examine it.

    1. Midnight

      Re: Desmond Bagley "Running Blind"

      That reminds me of a story involving time travel. The Clever Scientist figures out that as soon as time travel was invented, someone was bound to travel back in time to kill Hitler (Or some other Interesting Historical Figure). Once that happened someone else was guaranteed to travel back to stop him from doing that, and so on and so on. The only change to history which could not possibly be undone by another time traveller was to prevent time travel from being invented in the first place.

      This explained precisely why his last two attempts to build a time machine had each met with mysterious setbacks and disasters, but it also provided a guaranteed technique for using time travel to win The War: Just allow The Enemy to steal all of your research, knowing that they will throw everything they had into trying to beat you in the "Time Machine Race" which they can't possibly finish, let alone win.

      There was either a short story with that as the plot, or a future version of me travelled to the past and told it to me many years ago. I have never been able to figure out just which explanation of that story is true.

  39. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why give them your contact details?

    If it is the strange people on 4chan having a laugh, I wouldn't want to give them details on how to reach me.

    And if its an agency like the NSA then they have been watching your progress as you have been solving it anyway so don't need to be told your information.

  40. Not Elvis

    Think it's a........

    Job interview for the NSA...

  41. Herby Silver badge

    Why??

    Because!!

    I'd s.................

  42. Arm

    Clues that aren't hints

    All of the physical locations of hints, both inside and outside the US, correspond to locations of Google offices which are currently hiring, with only two exceptions Hawaii and Louisiana.

    The word CICADA appears to be an anagram of a trie mapping of the word GOOGLE.

    7 g 111 1 1 a

    17 o 1111 11 3 c

    14 l 1100 100 4 d

    5 e 101 1001 11 i

    Further, the number 3301 can also be derived as

    GOOGLE

    GOOGUL

    10^100

    10100

    10 10 00

    XOR 01

    11 11 01

    3 3 01

  43. LordHighFixer

    It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key

    But it all seems extremely boring, and in the end probably won't get you more than kabobs and a pint, if you are lucky. But it's nice that all the 3113t h4x0r5 have something to do with their time.

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