Once upon a time, deep in a YouTube conspiracy hole...

Do you ever just click one video and then let the YouTube autoplay take you down a weird dangerous route? Dangerous to your sleeping hours, that is. I think that was probably where I first heard about Cicada 3301 (and Thinking Sideways covered it, like Elisa Lam. I swear, I listen to other podcasts). But this one, while still unsolved, is a little more upbeat.

Well, if you consider dark-web puzzle solving upbeat.

The puzzle began in January 2012. An image was posted to a 4chan forum, and it read: "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." It was signed 3301. Later graphic clues would go on to include the blurry image of the cicada. If you just opened the image as a text file and followed the instructions left there, you'd be led to a page that was just a decoy. Turns out you had to install a program to get to the right coding to find the message--in the image that told them it was just a decoy. As the puzzles went on, a Reddit also emerged filled with seeming nonsense. 

But if your anything like me, you're no computer whiz (just setting up this blog was a struggle). Besides, even if you did know about computers, the puzzles would require you to know vast amounts of varied knowledge. Coding, music, computer things I couldn't even dream of trying to understand. So, people would follow along in forums or work on puzzles together. Which seemed to anger the group, Cicada 3301.

The puzzles grew more specific. You had to call a phone number and receive instructions from an automated voice. You had to visit a site that was only live for a few minutes. No longer could people sit back and follow along as other people did the work.

The blurry cicada image. They'll sometimes bury these in images so you can be sure you're getting a real clue.

The blurry cicada image. They'll sometimes bury these in images so you can be sure you're getting a real clue.

And then the mysterious group took it another step further. There were QR codes posted in real world locations (that the solvers were given coordinates for), complete with the blurry cicada image that was becoming infamous on the forums. And with those codes came the note,they wanted the best, not the followers. From there it was a journey into the dark web, where most of the solvers went dark as well with their communications of how the clues were progressing.

There's some debate as to just who Cicada 3301 could be. CIA or another government agency, recruiting spies with puzzles in the public, like they had with Alan Turing during World War II? Anonymous? A genius teenage kid with way too much time? No one could really hammer down who they could be since they were so cryptic.

Those who have revealed what happened on the darknet to Rolling Stone revealed that the group's ideology was about a world free from censorship, having the members who passed all their tests work on coding to help whistleblowers to continue to publish sensitive information. (Ironic, considering they were upset at the "followers" and wanted the members to keep their work secret). 

And these coders dwindled as they moved on to real life responsibilities, which is why the puzzle keeps emerging, as recently as last November. Though, you can never really be sure. Everyone likes to think they're clever. And when you're just a cryptic online organization, everyone will try their hand at pretending to be you.

I probably would have never stumbled across these puzzles of my own volition. I don't move through Reddit too often, and I don't dare touch 4chan. Plus all the technical knowledge involved? I would be a follower all the way. I'd probably scare myself into staying awake until 4am reading everything, but I would be a follower. (Or, if they really are back, I still am a follower.) 

Even for the people on the inside, with what they can or will say, it seems like the group is still rather mysterious. They don't have a "face" like Anonymous (unless you count the blurry cicada image). They don't clearly outline their ideologies to anyone but those smart enough to enter their inner circle. I feel like this still conflicts with the whole "no censorship" idea, but I guess you're allowed to self-censor. 

Anyone who can solve this stuff, let me know. I'll follow along until Cicada 3301 boots me off.

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