Inside The Lost Universe Of 3301.
The beginning is never the end.
You’re sitting on a creaky, dilapidated office chair — silently scrolling through your laptop as rain softly drizzles the world outside your window. Wanting nothing more in the moment than to check the state of online affairs, you keep scrolling. A slew of random thoughts run through your head, as always.
Deep down, you knew this was the furthest you could get from productivity or usefulness — like checking your fridge to see if something new magically materialized inside it since your last visit. But what else could you do? After all, it was 2012. It felt like there wasn’t a greater time to be alive — if you loved boredom.
So, naturally, you continue your search for everything at once, but nothing in particular. Until, something grabs your attention. It grabs onto it so tightly that it makes you stop, scroll back up, and simply keep looking.
With cold, surgically precise text, it reads:
““Hello. 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 who will make it all the way through. Good luck.”
“That’s odd.”, your inner voice says. You agree. As much as it wouldn’t surprise you if this were another addition to Reddit’s growing list of exotic pranks, your instincts told you this wasn’t it. Whatever it was, you couldn’t put your finger on it. For the firs time in a long time, you didn’t know.
With a fear and curiosity welling up in you to create a feeling you’ve never experienced before, you take a quick, shaky, breath. Something was brewing.
Oh, if only you knew what you had in store.
Finding The Truth
Cicada 3301 was one of the most elaborate, secretive organizations in history — fuelled by the deep web and sparked by that image. “There is a message hidden in this image. Find it, and it will lead you on the road to finding us.”
What could be more compelling than that? An anonymous entity looking for capable people with no clear reason, and the promise that you could be one of them. The internet bought that claim in a heartbeat.
But when Cicada said they wanted “highly intelligent people”, the majority of them didn’t realize how much they meant it:
Cicada wasn’t just planning on hiding online. It showed people it was prepared to break out into the real-world. Source
Walking along Cicada’s trail directed its “pilgrims” to data hidden in 17th century artwork, ciphers encoded into music, religious texts written in unknown languages, and even posters with QR codes — physically pasted onto telephone poles in towns across the world:
“Find it, and you will find us.”
It was unlike anything anyone had ever seen.
Finding The Truth.
But note the word “was”. The group vanished into the anonymity of the deep web in 2014, and so did the ciphers it made. It’s 2021 now, and we haven’t heard from 3301 since. What does that mean? It’s hard to say, because their final cipher remains uncracked.
Before its unexpected departure, Cicada left its followers with its own version of the Rosetta Stone— a mangled, rune-filled script called the Liber Primus.
But, by the time that happened, the people who remained were few and far between. Hype can only last so long, and the public’s opinion of 3301 had been dying for seven long years.
The few that were left in the game were the best of the best — having already obliterated all the challenges that were put in front of them. If anyone could peel back the layers of decryption in the Primus, it would be them.
Using a combination of advanced replacement ciphers and using decryption phrases like “DIVINITY” and “GOD”, they found the contents of essentially the whole document — some of which included:
“Welcome, pilgrim, to the great journey toward the end of all things. It is not an easy trip, but for those who find their way here it is a necessary one. Along the way you will find an end to all struggle and suffering, your innocence, your illusions, your certainty, and your reality.
Ultimately, you will discover and end to self.”
As well as:
“ PRESERVATION: We preserve things because we believe we are weak. If we lose them, we will not be strong enough to gain them again. This is the deception.”
Along with parables of an unknown human and a master, concepts of self-divination, and references to a “circumference” that we need to lose to achieve enlightenment:
Secrets lie unnoticed in the Primus. The more you look the more you find. There’s unbelievable depth to the messages here. Source
Its messages read like a contemporary Bible, but with a completely different tone. Every few paragraphs, you feel a chill you can’t explain.
Whether it’s the slight truth behind those writings, or going into the mind of the author, there’s something about the Primus that scares you to the bone. It makes you ask yourself any of this is a test or if this was the actual destination. The real reason Cicada exists.
The irony is that we have all the words we need, but they’re useless.
In the concluding sentence of the Primus’ final page were 128 alphanumeric characters that supposedly led to a site on the dark web. It remarked that it was the duty of all pilgrims to visit it.
“THE END: Within the deep web thee exists a link that hashes to:
“It is the duty of every pilgrim to seek out this page.”
There’s just one issue — that’s a link hashed with SHA-512. It’s a code you can’t decrypt without trying every single combination of letters and numbers and individually searching them up as a URL. SHA-512 has more combinations than there are atoms in the universe, and unless we’re missing something in the book, finding it by luck isn’t something we should count on.
That’s where the trail ends. A link hidden in plain sight on an unintelligible book that anyone can search up on Google right now. Even so, it still stands after seven years of gruelling effort.
Just like the mysterious hash they left us, Cicada’s been one of the few societies we can only make guesses about. Melding into the depths of cyberspace, it’s managed to maintain complete anonymity for almost a decade.
You can’t help but imagine what they were so keen on hiding, or why they wanted to recruit these people the first place. If you find your way to the end, what happens?
But that all assumes the puzzle was even designed to be solvable. If it wasn’t, it would be the most sadistic prank in history.
More importantly, though, it would ruin the hope that there’s something (or someone) out there — still waiting to be found by the right person:
The surprisingly normal life of a Cicada winner seems almost…too normal. Source
But if it was a prank, why go through all that trouble? It’s a story without a clear narrative, and that’s because we don’t know why it started.
When Cicada published its first challenge, the few people that won were apparently taken in as members of the society.
Marcus Wanner, an avid hacker who solved the puzzle when he was 16, recalls getting an anonymous email (supposedly from 3301) describing themselves as a “think tank” that fought for internet privacy and rights. It also conveniently offered him to work with them on a project. To see if his values aligned with theirs, they gave him one last set of questions to answer:
Do you believe that every human being has a right to privacy and anonymity, and it is within their rights to use tools which help obtain and maintain privacy?
Do you believe that information should be free?
Do you believe that censorship harms humanity?
Apparently, Wanner answered correctly. For the next few months, he built a project to protect and release a whistleblower’s confidential information in the event they were killed. It’s not what Cicada had in mind.
One day, midway through his project, Wanner’s username and password didn’t let him sign into his account. No one could sign in to their account. Cicada left just as quickly as it came.
Now, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time 3301 performed a virtual sleight of hand, but Marcus’ story turns our attention to the real question. Exactly what (or who) was the organization we called Cicada?
According to one of the “guides” Wanner corresponded with, the orchestrators behind Cicada were a group of friends concerned about the death of privacy and the spread of censorship.
That’s how everything started.
But, as noble of a cause that is, those “founders” sound like a group of playful CS-majors tricking the world while snickering from the comfort of their dorms. Not to mention, people ran in expecting 3301 to be developing secret gadgets, and harbouring weapons of mass destruction:
Bizarre archives from the original Cicada puzzles. There’s codes in both those images — just one step away from being clearly visible. Source
But the biggest loss would be the thrill of the chase — the hope that there’s till something out there, waiting to be found by the right person.
There’s a chance Cicada could be a brotherhood for justice — executing Robinhood-esque operations to preserve the world’s security. But, just as likely, they could be a web-terrorism platform that could do new dimensions of damage to our already fragile internet. Or, like everything we know about them, that might just be what they want us to think.
The bottom line is, we don’t know, and we probably never will.
3301 was a calling. It dragged millions of people not just into a scavenger hunt, but into the dream of a greater cause.
But from what Marcus said, it sounds like just that. A dream. But considering everything Cicada is, could it really just be a school project?
It doesn’t take an expert to know that those puzzles were too intricate for a hoax. There was too just much effort in them to be fore something that shallow. As little as we know about Cicada, the people who had it in them to craft those enigmas weren’t just anybody:
And depending on the plans they’re brewing, 3301 could be more menacing than anything we’ve ever seen. There’s more to Cicada than what we see at the surface, and the worst part is that we have no idea.
Hopefully, we don’t end up finding too late.
Sitting at a glass table surrounded with other members, the leader of 3301 wears a black, gnarled mask. Behind it, he wears a sinister grin you can only get from knowing something the entire world doesn’t.
“It’s only begun”, he thought.
I love following my curiosity. I also love being concise.