Marcus Wanner needed a little adventure in his life. A skinny 15-year-old brainiac with wire-frame glasses and wavy brown hair, he was the eldest of five, home-schooled by their mother, a devout Catholic, near Roanoke, Virginia. Shuttling Marcus between home, church and the Boy Scouts seemed like the best way to keep him away from trouble (and girls). “I missed out on a lot,” he recalls with a sigh. “I didn’t get out much.”
Though Marcus was gifted with computers, his mom and dad, an electrical engineer, also locked him down online. He couldn’t send an e-mail or register on a website without their permission. To make sure he was abiding, he was restricted to the living-room computer, which they could see. “It was the Big-Brother-eye-over-the-shoulder thing,” he says. But his parents only had so much power. “There was no way we could check what he was up to if he covered his tracks,” his mother admits. “He’s light-years ahead of us.” Marcus was a good kid, dependable, hardworking, the leader of his Boy Scout troop, just a project away from Eagle Scout. But he could only take so much. “Until a point, I tried to go with the flow,” he says. “And then I was like, ‘Aw, fuck it.’ ”
Fuck It Day came January 7th, 2012. His parents had recently caved in and let him get a laptop. Dressed in a T-shirt and his green Boy Scout cargo shorts (the only kind he wore), he was sitting on his bed, surreptitiously surfing the science and math board on 4chan, the notorious underground forum, when he came across a strange image that had appeared on the site three days earlier. It contained a message written in a thin white font against a black background. “Hello,” it read. “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.” It was signed “3301.”
For all Marcus knew, it could have been another dumb 4chan prank. He’d never been one for games like this. With the exception of the Rubik’s Cube, which he could solve in under a minute, puzzles were dull. But it was late and he was bored. Someone on 4chan had created an Internet Relay Chat channel where people were logging in to discuss the bizarre message. Marcus tried to imagine himself asking his parents for permission to chat with strangers on a site that had made a picture of a guy stretching open his asshole the Net’s grossest meme. Then again, he thought, maybe it was time he didn’t ask permission. With one click on the IRC link, Marcus said fuck it and went inside – not knowing what or whom he’d find.
Tekk doesn’t want to give his real name. Or his full handle. Or where he grew up. Or the name of the university where he recently started as a freshman, or where we meet for pizza one night this past fall. He’s been feeling paranoid ever since he stumbled upon 3301, which is how he met Marcus. This is clear when someone accidentally drops a plate nearby us and Tekk, a pasty, scruffy 18-year-old with thick black hair and glasses, whips around in a panic. “Sorry,” he tells me. “I’m still a bit twitchy.”
“With Cicada, no one knows what the goal is,” says one cipher expert, “or how you know when you won.”
The twitchiness began January 5th, 2012. At the time, he was just another sheltered 15-year-old nerd in suburbia, webmaster for his high school paper, and an earnestly goofy coder (one of his sites allows visitors to send virtual fruit to one another). But his life took an unexpected turn that day when a friend in robotics lab showed him a mysterious image he’d seen on 4chan. “Dude, you can’t be on 4chan on school computers – that’s not wise!” Tekk recalls saying. “That’s like the chamber pot of the Internet.”
But the challenge to find what was hidden in this picture intrigued him. He stared intently at the image. Someone on the IRC had heard rumors that terrorist groups encrypt secret notes in image files, ones that could be retrieved by opening the file in a different format. Running a text–editing program called Notepad, he opened the image and, sure enough, saw a strange string of words and garbage characters at the end: “TIBERIVS CLAVDIVS CAESAR says ‘lxxt>33m2mqkyv2gsq3q=w]O2ntk.’ ”
Tekk harrumphed with satisfaction. Caesar, he knew, was one of the most ancient forms of encryption, dating back to Julius Caesar, who used the cipher to safeguard military secrets. It works by taking the alphabet and then counting down each letter based on a designated number (say, replacing letters with ones three letters down the alphabet). When Tekk Googled Tiberius Claudius Caesar, he learned this was the fourth Roman emperor. Moving each character down four spots, the string of letters and numbers became a website address. When he clicked the link, it took him to a page with an image of a wooden duck and another cryptic message: “WOOPS just decoys this way. Looks like you can’t guess how to get the message out.”
When I ask Tekk how he felt upon seeing this riddle, he laughs and says, “It kind of rhymes with ‘what the duck?’ ” He joined the conversation among the puzzle solvers on the IRC. To Tekk, many seemed like the usual 4chan miscreants. But one guy totally knew his shit: Marcus.