The Weird True Story Of Cicada 3301

Alice going down the rabbit hole. Neo taking the red pill. Raoul Duke taking a "savage journey to the heart of the American dream." From the mainstream to the counterculture, it seems that despite our common need for security, safety, and normality, we all secretly dream of receiving an invitation into another world. And in this world, our lives would be unutterably transformed in ways we couldn't possibly imagine.

Perhaps it is this side of ourselves that explains the enduring appeal of Cicada 3301, an online phenomenon that first came to prominence in 2012 that has continued to attract new and enthusiastic converts to its base of hardcore followers. It has been described as one of the eeriest, creepiest mysteries of the internet by both Bustle and The Washington Post, while its critics have accused it of being everything from a satanic cult to an enormous criminal conspiracy. But what exactly is Cicada 3301? Here's the true story.

The origins of Cicada 3301

The original message announcing the arrival of the Cicada 3301 phenomenon was posted on the paranormal-themed /x/ board of the anonymous image-sharing forum 4chan on January 4, 2012, per Boxentriq. On the surface, the post was nothing but a few simple sentences, written in white text on a black background. It 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. Good luck. 3301" (via Welt).

4chan users are especially known for trolling their fellow 4chan users (via The New York Times Magazine). As such, the post may have been nothing more than a prank — a rather grandiose gesture concocted by a user with too much time on their hands. However, users soon found that there was indeed more to the image than met the eye, and that it did contain a hidden message.

The solution to the puzzle, while not entirely fiendish, was certainly geared towards those with a strong understanding of coding and an aptitude for lateral thinking; by opening the image in a text editor, another message was unlocked, reading "TIBERIVS CLAVDIVS CAESAR says "lxxt> 33m2mqkyv2gsq3q = w] O2ntk." And what may look like nonsense to many of us looked to some like a hint pointing to the next clue.

Cicada 2201: a duck ... and a decoy?

That the image contained a hidden message alone means little, but that a coherent path was set in motion proved that the mysterious "3301" was offering more than simple bluster. And to cryptographers — experts in the practice of codebreaking — the reference to "Caesar" in the decoded text was not just a historical reference. According to Boxentriq, "Caesar" was a cryptic indication that the jumbled array of letters, numbers, and symbols was the result of a "Caesar cypher" — a simple encryption technique. This message, too, could be decoded, to yield the URL:

The link led (and still leads) to a picture of a duck, accompanied by the somewhat smug message: "WOOPS! Just decoys this way. It looks like you can't guess how to get the message out." To first arrivals, it may have looked like game over, or at least that they had taken a wrong turn. But again, the tools that the treasure hunters were asked to employ were right under their noses.

Cicada 3301 spills out into the real world

That the duck image was a dead end — or decoy — proved itself to be, well, a decoy. Keen-eyed codebreakers pointed out the incongruous positioning of the words "out" and "guess" within the duck's accompanying message. They realized this was a hint that the code of the image had been altered with Outguess, which is steganography software that allows users to hide secret messages within the code of files while leaving the core content — in this case a visual image — intact (per Fast Company). From the decoded duck image, users were led through a book code that was then used to decipher the usernames of anonymous Reddit accounts linked to 3301, which then yielded links to two more images that needed to be decoded.

By putting various pieces together, the trail led to a real-world Texas telephone number, which, when dialed, played a computer-voiced answer machine message: "​​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." The two other primes, it turned out, were the dimensions of the image.

The website the clue led to contained the following message: ​​"You have done well to come this far. Patience is a virtue. Check back at 17:00 on Monday, 9 January 2012 UTC. 3301" (via Boxentriq). When the time finally arrived, the site was updated with a breathtaking new clue: coordinates leading to real-world locations spanning four entire continents.

Who was behind Cicada 3301?

As the puzzle progressed and developed in complexity, it became clear that whoever was behind it was willing to invest a great deal of time and money into the project, and it was unlikely to be the work of a prankster or delusionist.

According to The Face, Cicada 3301 puzzlers who made it to the locations listed on the website were greeted by posters containing QR codes, along with a logo of a cicada. That this new real-world round of clues had been spread as wide apart as Poland and Japan gave the impression that 3301 was more than one person working alone; rather, many believed that the challenge must have been set by a large organization with resources and personnel already at hand. Perhaps Cicada 3301 was a recruitment tool for an intelligence agency, specifically the CIA?

Others claimed that the imagery used in many of the puzzles suggested that Cicada 3301 was a secret society or cult, looking to merge technological know-how with occultism. Per the National Post, one commenter — who claimed to be a past member of the organization — stated that Cicada 3301 "was a Left-Hand Path religion disguised as a progressive scientific organization" that sought to employ Nietzschean philosophy to change the world. Elsewhere, the group was accused of being a ring of criminal hackers looking to recruit new talent.

Cicada 3301 participants were made to go it alone

Following the emergence of Cicada 3301 in the real world, an excitement grew among participants, as did a sense of community. Message boards buzzed with speculation and collaboration between puzzle-solvers around the world working in tandem to crack the case. But Cicada 3301 wouldn't remain a public event for long. Per YouTuber LEMMiNO, further codebreaking tasks eventually led to a dark web page, but only a select group of those who first visited the site were invited to continue. For the rest, a message appeared: "We want the best, not the followers." 

The few who continued were asked to create new email addresses by which to continue the game in the anonymity of the dark web, according to Boxentriq. The remaining puzzles were made unique to ensure that each participant was indeed going it alone. "Each person who has come this far has received a unique message encrypted with a unique key. You are not to collaborate. Sharing your message or key will result in not receiving the next step," an email from Cicada 3301 explained. The final steps of the challenge were thus hidden from public view, while those locked out of the challenge were treated to dead silence.

The end of Cicada 3301?

That Cicada 3301 essentially slammed the door in the faces of hundreds of obsessive and dedicated codebreakers was a bitter pill to swallow — especially as the remaining puzzles were now hidden from view, with no guarantee of any resolution or explanation of what the challenge had actually been about. But eventually, a message finally appeared on the usual subreddit: "We have found the individuals we sought. Thus our month-long journey ends. For now. Thank you for your dedication and effort. If you were unable to complete the test, do not despair. There will be more opportunities like this one. Thank you all. 3301" (via CNET).

According to the same source, that Cicada 3301 ended without any explanation was proof that it had been an elaborate trick. In fact, it was possible that the puzzle hadn't continued at all, and that the entire thing was a fiction that simply ended at the point that the majority of codebreakers had been told they were mere "followers." Was Cicada 3301 really what it purported to be?

A wave of Cicada 3301 imposters

The frustrations of Cicada 3301 enthusiasts left without an explanation only increased in the weeks and months to follow. Understandably, as they were left with no clarification of the ultimate purpose of the puzzle. In addition, they didn't receive any detail of what happened to those who "won" the challenge. Amid these frustrations, sites such as 4chan and Reddit where Cicada 3301 was widely discussed were engulfed in a wave of imitators mimicking the original challenge, or else posting fake clues and messages purporting to be from the original Cicada 3301.

But according to YouTuber LEMMiNO, astute Cicada followers had a sure way of discerning between 3301-inspired spam and the real deal, if it were ever to reemerge: a PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) signature, by which a hash code is generated to ensure that a user does indeed have a consistent single identity, TechTarget reports. As such, fake posts that were appearing on a regular basis on sites where Cicada might be expected to reappear were shot down with brutal regularity by the community's increasingly puzzle-starved codebreakers.

What happened to the winners of the first Cicada 3301?

Cicada 3301 warned that those who shared details of the final stages of the puzzle would be excluded from further steps. Nevertheless, details did arrive as to how the puzzle eventually played out and — if those who shared the information are to be believed — what happened to the people who made it all the way to the end. According to Rolling Stone, winners received some degree of clarification in an email explaining Cicada 3301's motivations: "We are an international group. We have no name. We have no symbol. We have no membership rosters ... We are much like a think tank, in that our primary focus is on researching and developing techniques to aid the ideas we advocate: liberty, privacy, security."

The Face reports that the winners were put to work on a seriously advanced task: developing a "dead man's switch" for whistle-blowers. In other words, a system by which sensitive information could be leaked to the public if the whistle-blower was injured, missing, imprisoned, or even killed. But the same source reports that the method of recruitment that Cicada had undertaken led to the formation of an unworkable group dynamic, in which excellent but stubborn characters failed to coalesce around their shared task. The group soon fractured, with the individuals going their separate ways before the project was abandoned.

Cicada 3301 finally returns

A year and a day after the first 3301 message was posted on 4chan, a post finally arrived that the Cicada community knew was the real deal. "Hello again. Our search for intelligent individuals now continues," the post read — exactly the same as the original image posted 366 days prior. Again, 4chan users were told that a hidden message was contained in the image and that finding it would be the first step on the road to uncovering the secret of Cicada 3301. Per YouTuber LEMMiNO, the image was verifiable using Cicada's PGP signature, thus proving that the second challenge had truly arrived.

The 2013 challenge proved to be similar to that of the previous year, testing the participants' knowledge of cryptography and steganography, as well as their lateral thinking and problem-solving skills. Once more, only a select few were given access to the final stages of the challenge ... but this time, no announcement was made to tell the world that the "intelligent individuals" had been found and that this year's recruitment round was over. Cicada simply seemed to vanish without a trace.

Did the Edward Snowden leaks spook Cicada 3301?

One person who took the 2013 challenge was a young codebreaking and programming enthusiast named Nox Populi, who now runs a YouTube channel explaining the intricacies of the Cicada 3301 story, per The Face. He was convinced that Cicada was more than just a hoax by a friend who made it to the end of the 2012 challenge. And after completing the challenge himself, Populi claims he was invited to join Cicada 3301's secretive work group — just as the previous year's winners had been. "The implication was that we were going to be joining to work on something, but they said, ​'We'll need a little bit of time to organize that,'" Populi told The Face. But the next step never came. Instead, all communication with Cicada 3301 suddenly ceased.

Many theories were put forward for the organizers' sudden and unannounced disappearance, though the most believable comes from Populi himself. Notably, he pointed out that the 2013 challenge coincided with whistle-blower Edward Snowden's revelations of mass data surveillance conducted by the NSA and other government bodies. The supremely secretive Cicada 3301 had been spooked and likely abandoned the project in favor of ensuring their own privacy was secure in light of what Snowdon had revealed.

The arrival of the Liber Primus

Despite the disappointing conclusion of the second Cicada 3301 puzzle, a new post in January 2014 announced that a third round of the mysterious challenge was about to begin. As The Guardian reports, this message ("Hello. Epiphany is upon you. Your pilgrimage has begun. Enlightenment awaits.") was accompanied by a hidden image that revealed a cicada logo after altering its contrast settings. And once again, the image contained another stenographically-coded message that would set participants on another fiendish path.

But according to The Face, the 2014 puzzle differed significantly from what came before. Instead of an invitation to a "brotherhood" of like-minded people, the winning code breakers were given a link to a book: "Liber Primus," a 74-page text of images and messages coded in runes that first appeared as part of the 2013 challenge and went unused at the time.

The "Liber Primus" was soon leaked to the wider community. As YouTuber LEMMiNO notes, much of the language of what was then decoded reads like a cryptic or otherwise occult group: "IT IS THROUGH THIS PILGRIMAGE THAT WE SHAPE OURSELVES AND OUR REALITIES[,] JOURNEY DEEP WITHIN AND YOU WILL ARRIVE OUTSIDE[,] LIKE THE INSTAR, IT IS ONLY THROUGH GOING WITHIN THAT WE MAY EMERGE," reads one of the translated pages, per "Unveiling Cicada 3301." And while some of these runic pages were easily decoded, others have proven to be exceptionally difficult. To date, 56 pages of the "Liber Primus" remain unsolved.

The afterlife of Cicada 3301

No further official Cicada 3301 puzzles have emerged since the arrival of the "Liber Primus." As months turned into years, many participants came to the conclusion that they had reached a dead-end, or there was something the whole community had managed to overlook. But in 2016, Cicada 3301 finally returned with a message that cracking the impossibly difficult runic texts of the "Liber Primus" was indeed the way forward. "The path lies empty; epiphany seeks the devoted. Liber Primus is the way. Its words are the map, their meaning is the road, and their numbers are the direction. Seek and you will be found. Good luck" (per Stranger Dimensions).

Little progress has been made in deciphering the "Liber Primus" since. Those dedicated to uncovering its secrets continue to formulate potential new ways to crack the code and finally induce the next stage of the Cicada 3301 story. In their eyes, everything suggests that it is only through some long overdue breakthrough that the true purpose of one of the internet's most mysterious happenings might finally be revealed.

But whether we find out what Cicada 3301 was really all about or not, those at the center of the community — such as Nox Populi — who have grown around it are optimistic that the challenges have had a positive effect on the lives of many enthusiasts. "We have a number of people who are going to be university graduates, in crypto, in computing sciences, that are there because of our little Cicada community," Populi told The Face in 2020. "I think, with Cicada: They made one of the best vessels for learning that I've ever seen." The challenge continues.