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Cryptic puzzles of the interwebs

By Daniel Lin April 7, 2022

Jude Tantawy Art

Shrouded in mystery, Cicada 3301 is an elaborate set of internet puzzles posted by an elusive underground organization and operating through the deep web. The name is eponymous with the first riddle created in 2012—an image depicting a series of seemingly unrelated characters arranged in the shape of a cicada. First posted on one of social media platform 4chan’s boards, the puzzle accompanied an audio-recorded message from the organization, 3301, explaining its purpose: to search for highly intelligent individuals.


After cracking the code, participating solvers discovered their task to be incomplete. New puzzles emerged, each one more obscure than the last. The participants soon realized that cooperation—communicating through internet forums—could assist them. As it progressed, Cicada 3301 led its followers through winding mazes of literature, history, alphabetical ciphers and other arcane knowledge, moving into the real world as GPS coordinates and QR codes attached to lampposts throughout five different nations. As for the final puzzle, only the fastest participants caught a glimpse of the website’s clues—it was blanked shortly after publication, replaced with the message “We want the best, not the followers.” This seemed to end the finale on a cliffhanger, with details about what 3301 really did with their winners left undisclosed. Yet the puzzle’s abrupt termination failed to quell the curiosity that it started, and in 2013, another round of Cicada began. These puzzles were different, but similar in nature to the original.


As it progressed, Cicada 3301 led its followers through winding mazes of literature, history, alphabetical ciphers and other arcane knowledge, moving into the real world as GPS coordinates and QR codes attached to lampposts throughout five different nations.

Cicada is only one of many cryptic web puzzles, which often use steganography, the practice of concealing data in something ordinary and nonsecret. Historically, steganography was a method used in cybersecurity to communicate a message or password with only the intended receiver knowing how to access it, but today it is more often a tool used to create complicated games.


Generally, web puzzles are made for fun, but also allow challengers to test their cryptography skills and develop auxiliary cognitive benefits. According to a study by the University of Michigan, untangling any type of puzzle can improve focus and problem-solving skills, including the ability to critically evaluate information. Furthermore, internet puzzles that involve more esoteric information stimulate players to expand their breadth of knowledge.


“Personally, even if I had cryptography skills, I would not attempt to solve Cicada 3301 because it does not interest me greatly. I prefer simpler puzzles, which can still help exercise my brain,” Sophomore Nolan Shieh said.


Sometimes, public organizations release puzzles as competitions to seek out high-calibered individuals, similar to 3301’s objective. For instance, in 2013, Government Communications Headquarters released a puzzle called “Can You Find It?” that required participants to decode several cryptograms across the internet.

Illuminated by its still unanswerable legacy, Cicada was welcomed back by codebreakers and curious observers when it returned again in 2014. After unscrambling the third round’s final stage, winners received not invitations but “Liber Primus:” a digital book authored by 3301 and written in intricate runes. Apparently, this clue-containing book was the way to reach Cicada’s end, as no puzzles were posted following its release. Today, the majority of pages remain undecrypted, further convoluting the truth behind 3301 and mapping more possibilities for what awaits both previous winners and newcomers. Despite this, the community around Cicada has only grown following its supposed disappearance.


Today, the majority of pages remain undecrypted, further convoluting the truth behind 3301 and mapping more possibilities for what awaits both previous winners and newcomers.

“Given the traction Cicada 3301 has gained through its complexity, there is definitely more than one creator, who appears to be very resourceful. Based on my own experience, I think it is unlikely that the puzzle is from a government agency looking to recruit people. Instead, the creators are most likely a private group working for their own goals,” Junior Lucas Awyong said.


Although Cicada 3301 seems to have vanished once again, its legacy has impacted the world. Through the attention drawn to cryptic internet puzzles, cryptography and cybersecurity have grown increasingly popular, and knowledge of them more relevant. Diving into the rabbit hole of decryption, players have discovered a world defined by indefiniteness: Seemingly simple things, like an image of a cicada, can be repurposed and given new significance.


 

About the Contributors

Daniel Lin

Staff Writer


Daniel Lin is a sophomore at Leland High School and a Staff Writer for The Charger Account. During his free time, he enjoys learning about new things and playing video games.










Jude Tantawy

Artist


Jude Tantawy is a sophomore at Leland High School. She is an artist for The Charger Account. During her free time she loves to draw, paint, do photography, cook, bake, and listen to music.

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