Cicada 3301, is the most mysterious and complex puzzle on the internet to recruit "highly intelligent individuals" from the public. The first Internet puzzle started on January 4, 2012, and ran for approximately one month. A second round began one year later on January 4, 2013, and a third round is ongoing following confirmation of a fresh clue posted on Twitter on January 4, 2014. What would come to be known as the Cicada 3301 puzzle is massively complex, involving a staggering array of elements including references to poetry, artwork, music, speculative fiction, obscure 18th century literary works, Mayan calendars, philosophy, mathematics, cryptography, numerology, technology, data security, steganography, and ancient manuscripts, among others. It spans continents, requires enormous reserves of willpower, knowledge, and technical skill, and has often been referred to as “the most elaborate and mysterious puzzle of the internet age.
On January 5, 2012, a cryptic message in simple white text on a black background mysteriously appeared on the Internet stating:
"Hello. We are looking for highly intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test. There is a message hidden in the image. Find it, and it will lead you on the road to finding us. We look forward to meeting the few who will make it all the way through. Good luck."
It was signed “3301,” and was accompanied by cicada imagery and an image in which the first clue was hidden.
The message led to a series of puzzles, each harder than the last. The first few were just about solvable by a canny individual working alone, requiring little more than mild coding ability and wordplay to get past. But as participants fell deeper into the rabbit hole, the references became less obvious – one clue involved a poem from a collection of medieval Welsh manuscripts, another a quote from a William Gibson book which was only released on 3.5 inch floppies.
Co-operating on chatrooms and message boards, a growing collection of puzzle solvers broke the codes, one by one. When the game moved into the real world – a series of GPS co-ordinates were posted, leading to QR codes attached to lampposts over five different nations, from Poland to Australia – it was clear that no single person could hope to solve everything.
But as quickly as the co-operation was encouraged, it was snuffed out. The final puzzle directed players to an address for a website on Tor, the anonymous browser now best known for its use by the Silk Road black market. But only the fastest movers ever got to see what was on the page: it was shortly blanked, and replaced with the statement "We want the best, not the followers." For those deemed "followers", Cicada was over.
The ultimate outcome of all three rounds of Cicada 3301 recruiting is still a mystery. The final known puzzles became both highly complex and individualized as the game unfolded. Anonymous individuals have claimed to have "won," but verification from the organization was never made and the individuals making the claim have not been forthcoming with information.