A Mind Twister
In 2012 ago a mysterious puzzle was sent out across the internet. It appeared on a black screen with the following message, “Hello. We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test. There is a message hidden in the image. Find it, and it will lead you on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few who will make it all the way through. Good luck.”
Sounds like something out of a movie Alfred Hitchcock movie but I swear this is real life. The person, or should I say number, that signed it was 3301. The puzzle was then labeled as Cicada 3301. The hunt began with thousands of hackers and tech gurus trying to solve this puzzling mystery.
There are only a few people in the world that have been able to solve it, one of them being Joel Eriksson. Eriksson is a 34-year-old cryptosecurity researcher and developer from Sweden that was actually late to the game when he started the challenge. To solve this seemingly impossible puzzle he had to use his crypto knowledge and even do some extra research into ancient Mayan numerology.
The Two Year Long Journey
The whole Cicada puzzle is extremely complex and I’m not sure I even fully understand how Eriksson solved it but I’ll try and break it down for you. The entire puzzle had multiple steps and had clues spread out across the country.
To solve the first image that was posted with the original challenge, Eriksson used steganography software. Steganography is the practice of encoding messages in data and nonsecret text. Once he ended the first message, it led him to another, and another after that. Eventually, he ended up with a “book” that could be used to decode other messages but to crack the “book” he had to use his research into Mayan numerals.
After more steps to this endless puzzle were conquered, Eriksson ended up with a Texas phone number. Naturally, the researcher called the number and ended up with a voicemail that said, “Very good. You have done well. There are three prime numbers associated with the original final.jpg image. 3301 is one of them. You will have to find the other two. Multiply all three of these numbers together and add a .com to find the next step. Good luck. Goodbye.” Ummm okay?
After solving this part of the puzzle Eriksson ended up with GPS coordinates that were locations of telephone poles around the country. Since Eriksson couldn’t travel to all of the countries, he enlisted in the help from other people that were also trying to solve Cicada 3301. On each telephone pole was a poster with images of a cicada and a QR code. Finally, Eriksson used the QR codes and more steganography to come up with a final address.
Was It All For Nothing?
When Eriksson arrived at the address, Cicada posted a message saying that they were disappointed in the groups of people that used teamwork to solve the puzzle. Since Eriksson enlisted in people to help him with the GPS coordinates, he did not qualify to move on.
Eriksson doesn’t see this as a complete loss because he still solved every step of a puzzle that no one has ever solved.
Who Is Cicada?
I’m sure the question that’s running through everyone’s mind now is “Who is the person behind the curtain?” The answer is no one knows. Theories have ranged from government intelligence agencies, an underground organization, and even just one individual. Eriksson’s theory is that Cicada is an underground organization. “ They are likely intellectual, anti-establishment, ideologically driven and they seem to be valuing logical/analytical thinking highly. They seem to share a lot of ideology with the cryptoanarchy movement, and old-school hackers,” he says.