A mysterious cryptography competition that claims to be searching for “highly intelligent individuals” has apparently started a third annual round of recruitment.
Cicada 3301 (the name given to both the scavenger hunt and the unknown organisation responsible for the puzzles) first began in January 2012, baffling participants with a series of puzzles and codes spread across the internet and various locations worldwide.
It’s been suggested that the challenge is an elaborate marketing campaign or perhaps a recruiting tool for the likes of MI6 or the CIA to find bright young hackers. Global interest in the story has heightened following recent articles including Chris Bell’s for The Telegraph, but the motives – and organisers – of Cicada 3301 remain a mystery.
So far two ‘rounds’ have been played in 2012 and 2013, but no-one who has cracked the final code has reported on what they found. However, this might all be about to change with the latest competition promising would-be cryptographers that “enlightenment awaits.”
The first ever image associated with Cicada 3301 was posted to a paranormal discussion board on the website 4chan:
“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.
With that the scavenger hunt began, and this first message was followed by a trail of clues requiring knowledge of a range of arcane topics. An interest in Mayan numerology proved handy, as did insight into Victorian occultism; QR codes were tracked down pasted to lampposts in cities from Russia to Spain; a telephone number played out eerie audio clues to callers, and a flair for steganography (the art of concealing information in images) proved to be a must-have.
But why ‘Cicada 3301’? The name comes from two motifs that repeatedly appear in clues: a picture of a cicada (as seen in the stencil above) and the number ‘3301’, often used a signature by the puzzles’ anonymous creator.
The connection between the two signs are prime numbers, or numbers that are only divisible by 1 and themselves: 3301 is a prime (as is 1033) and the cicada is a creature that naturally expresses primes, with species posessing either a 13- or 17-year life cycle. Both digits are prime numbers, and it’s thought that this is adaptation was developed in order to confuse predators who might look for regular patterns in the creatures’ appearance.
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