Cicada 3301: The Secret Behind Self Storage?

Tim Schlee |
The image that began the 2014 scavenger hunt. StorageFront is a pretty exciting place to work, but the latest happening takes the cake. On Saturday, January 4th, a StorageFront client received a string of mysterious phone calls. “CR,” the callers would say, or, “Access code CR.” When asked why they were calling, the callers simply hung up. The managers of the Arizona storage facility were, of course, baffled. One caller even demanded that the manager on the line declare she wasn’t a robot. For a while, it was a mystery, but one caller late in the day explained the root of the strange disturbances – the StorageFront client’s phone number was found embedded in an image related to the enigmatic Cicada 3301 phenomenon. It began in early 2012, when an image was posted to the anarchic message board 4chan. “Hello,” it read in white text on a black background. “We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test.” The test, it turned out, was a series of puzzles which required solvers to find hidden messages, break various codes, and decrypt clues from all kinds of obscure information. It began in the very first image posted. “There is a message hidden in this image,” it read. The message was quickly discovered and it sent the enthralled participants on a wild goose chase across the Internet and the world to solve increasingly difficult and varied puzzles. There were images, websites, songs, and telephones. Participants had to track down medieval texts to decode book ciphers. Before long, the search led people to the infamous Deep Web, whose greater anonymity makes it a hotbed for criminals involved in drugs, human trafficking, and child pornography. One puzzle even required participants to scan QR codes posted in various locations all across the world. The constant throughout these various tasks was the recurring image of a cicada. A list of GPS points related to Cicada 3301 So vast was the knowledge required that it seemed beyond the ability of any one individual. When participants encountered the GPS coordinates listed above, a collaborative effort became a necessity. Teams of people all across the world quickly formed to solve the mysterious puzzles, many of whom reconvened when the puzzles recurred in 2013 and, once again, in the ongoing 2014 iteration. As the puzzle solvers progressed, they needed increasingly advanced web writing and encrypting skills. One writer decries the common use of the word “cryptography” in relation to the puzzles, saying instead that they require a knowledge of “different file formats, internet networking, various messaging environments, and anonymity services.” He writes, “So who are the people that Cicada 3301 is trying to attract?” He answers his own question by saying, “To put it bluntly, people who are proud to call themselves ‘geeks’.” Vocabulary aside, only the sharpest of minds are capable of continuing very far. What makes the entire phenomenon so compelling is the complete lack of any knowledge about the organization behind it. When the people who cracked the final puzzle arrived at the URL they had uncovered, they were too late. “We want the leaders,” read the page, “not the followers.” No one who made it in time has spoken about it. It’s this mystery that keeps people coming back each year in ever larger numbers. Everyone, of course, wants to find out the secret to it all. Entire websites have been set up, such as the Cicada 3301 Wiki, in order to maximize the resources available. One wonders how long the mysterious group behind the curtain can remain obscure as more and more people across the globe begin to participate. For now, however, it is all speculation. A selection of artwork by William Blake

An image used in one of this year’s puzzles, created from artwork by poet/artist William Blake.

Some believe the puzzles are a recruitment test for an intelligence organization like the CIA or the secretive NSA. Others think it might be a kind of Alternate Reality Game, similar to the I Love Bees game used to promote the release of the video game Halo 2. Still others conjecture that a bank or a group of banks is recruiting elite hackers and web programmers in order to develop a kind of cyber-currency. Online personalities, most of whom refuse to reveal their real names, have provided support for yet another theory, a kind of elite underground hacker community whose purpose is not entirely clear. A young Californian who spoke to CBS News said he found himself in a chat room with people claiming to have organized the Cicada 3301 puzzles. “It seems like their end goal would be to have some kind of free and open cryptography and anonymity software released to the public,” he said. “But that’s just a small facet of what they’re trying to do. I don’t think anybody actually knows what they’re going to do from here.” Maybe these anonymous sources are telling the truth, but unfortunately there is no solid evidence that points to any one theory over another. The only people who know the truth are the organizers and the select few who made it to the final site in time – if any have. But it’s started again for the third year in a row, and many more will try their hand at finding out the secret behind the mysterious cicada. Eventually, the fervor will pass. After a month, the riddles end and the world goes back to normal. “We have found the individuals we sought,” read another image posted online after the initial set of puzzles in 2012. “Thus our month-long journey ends. For now.” So too will end the pestering our client has received from individuals no doubt far off the mark. Or maybe those two facility managers are the masterminds behind it all. What do you think? The final message from Cicada 3301 in 2012