1. In January 2012 this image was posted to 4chan’s “random” board.
2. Joel Eriksson, a 34-year-old computer analyst from Uppsala in Sweden, saw the message.
He knew it was an example of digital steganography: a way of hiding an encoded message in an image. A sender might, for example, start with an innocuous image file and adjust the color of every 100th pixel to correspond to a letter in the alphabet.
Eriksson tried decoding 3301’s message. After only a few minutes work he’d got somewhere: a reference to “Tiberius Claudius Caesar” and a line of meaningless letters.
3. He worked out it was a “Caesar cypher”, as used by Julius Caesar in private correspondence. From that, he found a new web address.
4. It led to this picture. He ran it through a decryption programme, and found another link to a Reddit messageboard. There were encrypted links to books on it, along with lines and dots.
6. The clues got more and more complex, with increasingly sophisticated encryption techniques required. More and more 4chan users joined the hunt. And this logo began to appear more and more.
Cicadas only appear every prime number of years to avoid their predators. The puzzles began to include prime numbers.
7. The increasingly complex riddles were communicated in a number of different ways: music, on the “darknet”, digital images, Linux CDs, and physical posters.
8. They have referenced (among others) William Gibson, William Blake, Aleister Crowley, Anglo-Saxon runes, and John William Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott.
9. And have appeared all over the USA, in Russia, Japan, France, South Korea and Poland, prompting speculation the group is large and well-funded.
10. So who are they? There have been a number of different theories:
This anonymous posting on Pastebin, allegedly from a British military officer, says it’s a group of “military officers, diplomats, and academics who were dissatisfied with the direction of the world”. However, it’s likely a fake.
11. It could, of course, be a recruitment drive, like the one launched by British intelligence services last year. It could also be a private company looking for cryptologists: a useful skill in the world of online shopping in particular.
12. According to this solvers’ wiki:
People who solved all puzzles in 2012 leaked some (too much?) information on what happened next. “Winners” got an invitation to a secret group made up of everyone who had succeeded that far. In that group they were advised by “3301 mentors” with the ultimate goal of creating a security application. Some believe it to be a final test, others say they had already been given entry, but the consensus is 3301 did not reveal themself not any of the mentors. Rumor has it that group was disbanded due to inactivity and lack of motivation.
13. Right on schedule, the puzzles reappeared on January 5th this year, on this little-followed Twitter account.
15. Steganography has revealed a quote:
The work of a private man/ who wished to transcend,/ He trusted himself, / to produce from within.
16. More research through Outguess has revealed a link to a treatise by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
17. Running an excerpt through a cipher reveals this collage from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
18. As the Telegraph reports:
Specifically, it features a collage of his works Nebuchadnezzer, The Ancient Of Days and Newton – with a faint marking of a cicada tucked into the bottom of the picture.
But the images are arranged in such a way that some solvers are now debating whether the image is supposed to represent a Thelema star (a hexagram developed by Aleister Crowley) or an image of a Masonic Square.
19. If you want to monitor the progress of Cicada 3301’s solvers check this wiki.
Will this be the year we finally discover the truth behind the mystery?