Cicada: Solving the Web’s Deepest Mystery
On February 28th, Marcus received an e-mail signed with 3301’s PGP key. “Hello,” it read. “The next step is finally here.” The message included specific instructions for visiting a secret site on the darknet, the hidden part of the Web, along with a username and password. The message concluded with one powerful word, ushering Marcus into 3301. “Welcome,” it read.
Marcus wasn’t the only solver to receive the message. So did, by Marcus’ and Tekk’s estimates, at least 20 others. Tekk was still very wary. “I wasn’t sure what I was getting into,” he recalls. The darknet address led them to a page where they found themselves in a chat forum with the other recruits – as well as a handful of people who claimed to be part of 3301. It felt thrilling to have finally arrived.
The solvers wanted answers. Who were 3301? What were their goals? How did they start? They received some circumspect answers from the elders, though of course they had no idea what was really true or if they were being played. 3301, the story went, had been started by a few friends who shared like-minded imperatives – anonymity, privacy, encryption – and wanted a way to pool their talents to create useful software that ensured these ideals. As friends recruited friends, 3301 grew internationally. The group, as they understood it, had no official affiliation with any one government or military. “They insinuated they were a part of a bunch of different organizations,” Tekk recalls. “It was some kind of secret society.” They shared a common goal: to increase privacy and security in the Digital Age, and ensure the freedom of information.
In many ways, the Cicada group reminded Marcus of the Boy Scouts, except “they didn’t have a handbook,” he says. “They had an ideology.” 3301 took inspiration from cicadas, creatures who are, in a sense, masters of encryption. In particular, the inner circle referenced the so-called periodical cicadas whose populations, called “broods,” only emerge from the underground every 13 or 17 years, prime-number years at that. (In fact, the handle of one of the mentors was Magicicada, the genus name for the periodical bugs.) Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould has speculated that the prime-number emergences serve to protect the cicadas from predators who might otherwise come to rely on them as a regular food source.
“I was part of Cicada for more than a decade,” the anonymous author wrote. “I’m here to warn you: stay away.”
3301 (chosen because it’s a compelling prime number, a twin prime forward and backward), they were told, was organized into decentralized cells – also called broods – each with its own area of research. They were told that the group is compartmentalized so that individual cells had no knowledge of each other. Marcus, Tekk and the other recruits were told they were Brood b.0h. Puzzles were not always used for recruitment but had been, in this case, because the group was seeking new members with coding and cryptography skills.
Now that the new brood had been taken in, the 3301 members told them, they would be tasked with creating software that fit the ideology of the group. In discussions on the darknet site that ran for weeks, the recruits decided to create software to protect whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning, who was facing trial at the time. Together, they came up with an idea they called the Cicada Anonymous Key Escrow System, or CAKES. In short, it would trigger the automatic publication of sensitive data online if and when the whistle-blower or researcher was indisposed for a designated period of time (due to, say, death or incarceration).
For months, Marcus and the others collaborated on CAKES, working on their own and sharing notes on 3301’s hidden site. The mentors from 3301 would drop in and share their comments and thoughts on the progress. This kind of secret collaborative process was unusual but not without precedent. Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency, had been developed in secrecy as well. But, for Brood b.0h, the buzz of acceptance soon gave way to the drudgery of what felt like homework. Marcus would log on to see that fewer and fewer of the others were completing their tasks. Even Tekk, who had to deal with the real-world task of a summer job, had stopped visiting the forum early on. “I had other work to focus on,” he says. “I just faded away.”
By the end of 2012, Marcus was the last one still coding. But after months at his laptop, he was stuck. Part of his enthusiasm for solving Cicada and joining 3301 was to collaborate with others, to get out of his box in Roanoke and be part of something larger, something powerful, something world-changing. But now here he was sort of full circle, the last scout on the trail. With CAKES only partially done, he appealed to the elders in 3301 to recruit new members with the skills to help him complete the programming. His mentors communicated that they would be looking for new recruits. Despite all his time in 3301, he still didn’t know much more about the group other than what he had been initially told. And, for fear of being excommunicated, he didn’t discuss it with family or friends.
On January 4th, 2013, the anniversary of the first Cicada puzzle, solvers crowded their IRC channel, anticipating when and how the new puzzle from 3301 would drop. Amid the fervor, an anonymous person posted a mysterious confessional. “I was part of what you call 3301/Cicada for more than a decade,” the anonymous author wrote, “and I’m here to warn you: Stay away.”
Any portentously dire and anonymous message on the Internet could be bullshit or trolling. But as the skeptical solvers read the screed, the author seemed knowledgeable enough about 3301 to give them pause. The author said he had been a military officer in an unnamed, non-English speaking country when, after a year of being unknowingly vetted in person, he was recruited by a member of 3301. He described them as “a group of like-minded individuals, all incredibly talented and connected, [working] together for the common good: the good of mankind.” But over several paragraphs, he cautioned about their cultish beliefs, a conviction, for example, in “the Global Brain as another kind of ‘God’ ” – 3301 was nothing more, he wrote, than a “religion disguised as a progressive scientific organization.” He concluded by saying he had since found Jesus.
“The Warning,” as the post became known among Cicada obsessives, only added to the mythology and conspiracy theories – particularly since the author of the post could not be reached, and disappeared. Some wrote it off as the rant of some crazy troll or 4chan punk messing with their heads. For insiders like Marcus, though, the details in the Warning rang true – the military origins, the ideology behind the work. He believed it could have come from someone in the group. But it was also, perhaps, purposeful misinformation to deter anyone naive enough to believe it. “I think it was meant to keep people away,” he says.
In fact, the Warning proved suspiciously well-timed. Hours after it appeared, an image was posted to 4chan, written in the familiar thin white font. “Hello again,” it read. “Our search for intelligent individuals now continues. The first clue is hidden within 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. 3301.”
As solvers swarmed to the puzzle, Marcus had grown weary of laboring away on CAKES alone and awaited what he hoped would be the influx of fresh recruits to help him.
The 2013 version of Cicada offered up more extremely complicated riddles. There was a cipher based on a book by occultist Aleister Crowley. There was another riddle embedded in a song, an amplified guitar instrumental that, upon spectral analysis, revealed a humming sound at a frequency of 15.4 to 16.1 kilohertz, and an analysis of the mp3 file uncovered a hidden message: “Like the instar, tunneling to the surface, we must shed our own circumferences; find the divinity within and emerge.” There were more coordinates, more Cicada images tacked to telephone poles. Since he was already inside the group, Marcus hadn’t been spending too much time trying to solve the new puzzles, but a friend in Japan sent him a Cicada poster he’d found on a street corner in Okinawa.
Yet within weeks, solvers hit a dead end. Some, claiming to have completed the puzzle, returned to the forums complaining they’d never received the final invites from 3301 to join the group. Others speculated that perhaps those who had been recruited this year simply refused to reveal themselves. All Marcus knew was that, if there was a new brood selected, they were nowhere to be found on the darknet site. He had no idea what was happening behind the scenes. Perhaps the brood hadn’t lived up to 3301’s expectations. Perhaps there’d been an infiltration by the authorities. Perhaps 3301 were the authorities and this all was some weird honey pot. In March, Marcus received a message from another solver, nicknamed Sage, who’d made it into the 2012 brood. “We’ve been laid off,” Sage told him, but had no further information. When Marcus tried to log back on to the darknet site, it was gone.