Following the clues of Cicada 3301 - Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 26 November

Cryptographers try to crack a mysterious internet code/ Internet mystery stumps amateur codebreakers / Cicada cypher/

Following the clues of Cicada 3301

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 26 November

Photograph: iStock

It could easily be the plot from a Hollywood blockbuster but the series of mysterious online code-breaking challenges known as Cicada 3301 is a very real phenomenon.

Since January last year, a shadowy group (or possibly an individual) has been posting fiendishly difficult puzzles on the internet in what appears to be a recruitment drive to attract the brightest and best people in cryptology and computer programming.

The first message appeared on an internet forum calling for people to join the hunt. “Hello,” it said. “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.”

The message was simply signed: “3301”.

Since then, the puzzles – which often include encrypted computer code so deeply embedded that it is almost impossible to find – have become ever more elaborate as increasing numbers of people join in the hunt for clues. The teasers have led people to answerphone messages left in robotic voices, to physical locations across the globe and even into the murky world of the so-called “darknet”, also known as the criminal internet.

As the tests’ difficulty has grown, the people responsible have started to leave a calling card in the shape of the cicada insect, similar to the imagery used in Thomas Harris’ best-selling novel The Silence of the Lambs. The cicada emerges only every prime number of years, such as 13 or 17.

Thousands of codebreakers and enthusiasts have been left scratching their heads as to who might be behind the scheme now known as Cicada 3301.

Jim Gillogly, former president of the American Cryptogram Association, told UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph that setting codes in such a manner was a well-used method of recruitment.

“During the Second World War, the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School used crossword puzzles printed in The Daily Telegraph to identify good candidates for Bletchley Park,” Dr Gillogly said.

“But I’m not sure the CIA or NSA [National Security Agency] is behind Cicada. Both are careful with security, the recent Snowden case notwithstanding. And starting the puzzle on [the anarchic internet forum] 4chan might attract people with less respect for authority than they would want working inside.”

The trail appeared to go cold after about a month, when a set number of people responded to a website that gave access to the darknet. A simple message appeared for those who arrived too late: “We want the best, not the followers.”

It is believed that the chosen few were then set private puzzles to solve. After that, Cicada 3301 appeared to be over. But on 4 January 2013, the hunt began again with another select few being picked after a similar quest.

Theories as to what lies behind the puzzles range from it being an elaborate public relations exercise by a major corporation, the CIA or MI6 recruiting codebreakers or even a thinktank looking for the best brains.

While Cicada 3301’s motivations remain secret, however, thousands of internet users are awaiting 4 January 2014 with bated breath.


1. Why might certain organisations recruit people through coded messages?
2. What are some of the ethical dilemmas of this process?
3. Can you think of any famous types of codes? Do you know how they are used?
4. Why do we find this type of story so intriguing?

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