The Internet is full of myths and weird things. Fake breaking news, alien stories, made up scandals etc. But world web isn’t just fields of mindless dreck. For instance, you could always take a crack at the web’s toughest crypto-puzzle. Those are not in short supply from ever-baffling Cicada 3301.
Appearing each year since 2012, these strange series of challenges have stumped computer whiz-kids all over the world. And it appears that the quizmasters eventually get in touch with whoever is able to crack the code to offer them a membership in their secret club of hackers.
Cicada 3301 first appeared with a picture posted on 4Chan, one of the eldest and popular imageboards. In white text on a black background, the posted message read: “Hello. We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test.
“There is a message hidden in this image.
“Find it, and it will lead you on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few that will make it all the way through.
It was signed “3301”.
That message led to a series of puzzles, each harder than the last. The first few were more or less solvable by an educated individual working alone, requiring little more than mild coding ability and wordplay to get past. But as participants fell deeper into the rabbit hole, the references became less obvious – one clue involved a poem from a collection of medieval Welsh manuscripts and another quote from a William Gibson book.
The final puzzle directed players to an address for a website on Tor, the anonymous browser now best known for its use by the notorious Silk Road black market. But only the fastest movers ever got to see what was on the page: it was shortly blanked, and replaced with the statement “We want the best, not the followers.” For those deemed “followers”, the Cicada adventure was over.
Then, on January 5 2013, exactly a year and a day after the first posting, a new image was uploaded onto 4chan’s /b/ message board and the story repeated itself.
Now, who are these people really and what’s the real goal behind the riddles they put up on the web? Alan Woodward, Professor at University of Surrey, suggests it could be a criminal organization looking for recruits or it could be a start-up looking to set up a new crypto-currency.
As if to reinforce the Woodward’s theory, the Cicada-like puzzles were found by the members of CryptoNote community. CryptoNote is known as a platform allowing for creation of anonymous cryptocurrencies. Considering all the secrecy that surrounds CryptoNote, it appears to be a perfect match for Cicada.
Also the secret coordinates deliberately embedded into the Bytecoin blockchain don’t make the picture clearer. They were found along with anonymous messages stored in the extra raw field of coinbase transactions. The messages appear to be quotes from Victor Marie Hugo, Dante Alighieri, Friedrich Nietzsche, Galileo Galilei and other famous authors. There are about 100 different coordinates from all over the world (see the link here) of which 31 are universities and other 70 are yet to be identified. Whether these coordinates and messages comprise another riddle from Cicada; no one knows.
Below are a few examples of Cicada reaching out to the members of CN community:
Cicada-style pictures used to communicate with the community by Bytecoin developers or someone impersonating them. link
First CryptoNote implementation (Bytecoin) TOR site (currently offline) hidden message features a reference to Cicada. This message was decoded shortly after. link
Looking over the content of the links above you will notice that knowledge of cryptography, steganography, programming, computer networks, obscure literature and mathematics is essential in order to get an idea of what’s going on. No one knows who is behind the spooky puzzles, or if they do, they’re not telling.
The level of sophistication involved is another reason why it is tempting to connect Cicada with CryptoNote and Bytecoin. The former and the latter represent a peer-to-peer payment system introduced as open source software in 2012. You could call it a virtual currency, although it does not meet the generally recognized definition of money; the US government calls it a decentralized currency. In the last couple of years, Bytecoin has been touted as a currency capable of providing a hitherto unachievable level of anonymity in financial transactions.
CryptoNote is a technology that was created from scratch and has almost no commonalities with Bitcoin. Creating something so sophisticated requires a lot of top notch work, especially in terms of math and cryptographic underpinnings. The idea that such a complex project could be pulled off by amateurs or unaffiliated crypto enthusiasts just doesn’t hold up. Whoever created CN would have needed experts in many fields to work for them all the while keeping the whole operation low profile, controlling it and staying away from the mainstream media until the time is ripe. They would also need the resources and the motivation to do something of this scale. So having some sort of government agency pulling the strings here seems to fit very well.
But now all we have left to do is to wait and see if Cicada 3301 gives us another clue. As Alan Woodward puts it “Whoever is behind it has put an enormous amount of effort into it. It is someone with quite a lot of resources or a lot of time on their hands< span>“.