Cyber Secrecy: Cicada 3301

Terrence Shu


Real-world example: Cicada 3301

Where/when: 2012-2014, over the Internet

Sub-concepts: anonymity, Alternate Reality Game, cyber intelligence

Cicada 3301 refers to a set of clues that have appeared on the internet, posed a challenge to cryptanalysts, data analysts, and the like. The stated intent was to recruit capable individuals to some unknown cause; if you solved the clues you would supposedly be deemed worthy. There has been no known resolution to the puzzles, and their origins and purpose still remain unknown.
Cicada 3301 relies heavily on secrecy in its application and appeal. Many have speculated that it was some sort of recruitment process for government intelligence agencies or fringe hacker groups. Regardless, the entertaining possibility that solving these elaborate puzzles and clues could open doors to some hidden, secret organization is undoubtedly at the heart of the appeal. As I wrote about the reading on The Sibyl: if everything you know is mundane and boring, then the unknown is suddenly much more attractive, as it entertains the possibility of being new, exciting, perfect, godly, exceptional. Whoever or whatever organization is behind Cicada 3301 clearly relies heavily on this phenomenon to attract players for their alternate reality game.

The fact that the clue chain has no confirmed resolution so far adds to the mystique. In our minds, the two possibilities are either: that it is thus far unsolvable, and whoever solves it must have some kind of special destiny; or, that those who have solved it are either silenced by its creator through force or through induction into whatever realm of secrecy the puzzle originated from. Either way, you can imagine how disappointing and ultimately forgettable it would be for a cryptographic genius to solve the puzzle and then come out and say, “Guys don’t hold your breath, it was really nothing.” As long as it remains unsolved, Cicada 3301 can inspire whatever kind of secret clandestine fantasy in the masses, and serves as evidence of a darker, hidden side of the world of cyber intelligence. In this way, it joins the ranks of such esoteric terms as the Deep Web or “hacktivism”.

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