ELI40

Who is Cicada 3301?

Page 7: Truth - Some philosophies emerge

William Blake collage
This collage of hands is from several William Blake paintings. Blake famously stated Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death.

In January 2014, for the third year in a row, the Cicada 3301 puzzle continued. This time it started on Cicada 3301's Twitter feed instead of 4chan. At this point the puzzles had received enough publicity that people were prepared and waiting. Most were probably expecting yet another series of technical puzzles. Most would be disappointed.

Following the same pattern as previous years, the first clue was a black image with white text, a very faint cicada image, and a hidden Outguess message that contained a book code that decoded to a Tor site. This time the book used was Ralph Waldo Emerson's well-known transcendentalist essay Self-Reliance.

The Tor site contained an image based on several paintings from William Blake including Newton, The Ancient of Days and Nebuchadnezzar. Both Emerson and Blake are known for their unconventional philosophies. The same was true with Aleister Crowley's work referenced in 2013. All of these works are somewhat anti-establishment, arguably championing individualism and freedom to the point of self-entitlement. Some scholars find these philosophies extremely insightful and empowering while others find them controversial because they disregard group ethics such as obedience, charity, altruism, sexual purity, avoiding sin, and following the laws of society.

Looking at all these clues together, it's tempting to draw conclusions about the philosophies of Cicada 3301. Maybe there is some correlation but Cicada never openly agrees or disagrees with any of the referenced philosophies. Instead, if Cicada does have a philosophy, it is to trust no one. In other words, their philosophy is that you should draw your own conclusions.

The collage of Blake's painting may or may not have a deeper meaning. All that's known for sure is that it contains an embedded message. This time however, instead of using public-key cryptography as a digital signature, the message's content is encrypted and the public-key is not provided. Requiring people to break the encryption could be seen as a turn towards the black-hat side of cryptography or it could be seen as yet another test, like a homework assignment to make sure puzzle solvers understand both the strengths and weaknesses of public-key cryptography.

The Blake collage was examined at depth in an attempt to find the public key. In the end, the public key was found with brute force. The RSA encryption key is 130 decimal digits long which is 432 bits. This key is tiny compared to most RSA keys which are 2048 bits or more. Since each bit doubles the difficulty, a 432-bit key is far easier to factor than a 2048-bit key. Still, factoring a 432-bit number is more than a typical computer can do in a reasonable amount of time so puzzle solvers worked together to distributing the problem across several computers.

After proving that they could work together, puzzle solvers were led to another Tor site. The site contained unexplained data that was eventually decrypted into images. These images contained hidden messages that led to more Tor sites with more encrypted images with more hidden messages and so on. While this appears to be the same pattern as previous years, an important difference starts to emerge. From this point on, every clue centers around slightly modified Anglo-Saxon runes and what becomes known as the Liber Primus.

Gematria Primus
RuneLetterFlip Prime
FEA2
UIA/IO3
THY5
OAE7
RA11
C/KD13
GOE17
WNG/ING19
HL23
NM29
IE31
JB37
EOT41
PS/Z43
XX47
S/ZP53
TEO59
BJ61
EI67
MN71
LH73
NG/INGW79
OEG83
DC/K89
AR97
AEO101
YTH103
IA/IOU107
EAF109
  • pages/01
  • pages/02
  • pages/03
  • pages/04
  • pages/05
  • pages/06
  • pages/07
  • pages/08
  • pages/09
  • pages/10
  • pages/11
  • pages/12
  • pages/13
  • pages/14
  • pages/15
  • pages/16
  • pages/17

With the help of the Gematria Primus from 2013, deciphering the runes is fairly straightforward. The runes translate to philosophical text that, while interesting, is not necessarily part of solving the puzzles. The puzzle clues continue using Outguess and more Tor sites. It's like two separate levels, the philosophical references and the clues embedded in the references. Some puzzle solvers are interested in the technical challenges and don't care about the philosophy while others are interested in the philosophy but aren't particularly adept at the technical challenges.

Peral with Rasputin

In addition to Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Blake, one of the 2014 clues used "Portrait of Andrés del Peral" by Francisco De Goya. The image used by Cicada 3301 was modified to include a ghostly overlay of Rasputin, a barely visible cicada logo and some extremely faint numbers. Another clue referenced part of Gödel's incompleteness theorem, an eye from an M.C. Escher painting, and a portion of Bach's Trio Sonata in G Major (BWV 1039). These were not-so-subtle hints that the following book code used the well-known "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter. Again, it's possible to decipher the embedded clues without understanding the deeper meaning of these philosophical references.

  • ../primus/0
  • ../primus/1
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  • ../primus/7
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  • ../primus/14
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  • ../primus/21
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  • ../primus/26
  • ../primus/27
  • ../primus/28
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  • ../primus/30
  • ../primus/31
  • ../primus/32
  • ../primus/33
  • ../primus/34
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  • ../primus/54
  • ../primus/55
  • ../primus/56
  • ../primus/57

The 2014 puzzle once again ended with a private portion. Applicants were allegedly required to create their own Tor hidden service that could accept images. While this may sound like black magic to most of us, it's actually not all that difficult. Similar to knowing about Outguess, there are script-kiddies who could create a Tor hidden service without understanding any of the technical details. It's like knowing how to drive without understanding what goes on under the hood. Though for most puzzle solvers, this is still a hurdle that isn't worth bothering with. Why bother learning how to drive if you're never going to own a car?

Some people claimed they finished the puzzle and received a "Welcome to Cicada" message, the same as in previous years. Also like previous years, none of those claims were verifiable. The more accepted consensus is that after several months of waiting, those with a valid Tor hidden service running suddenly received 58 images uploaded to their server. These images are more pages of the Liber Primus. Several sources have confirmed these images but nobody has managed to decipher all of them, at least not publicly.

January 2015 came and went without anything new. Other than unfounded rumors, all was silent until July when Cicada 3301 posted a digitally signed message stating that they were not associated with recent attacks on Planned Parenthood and they do not engage in illegal activities. The message was simply a response to inaccurate press coverage and didn't contain any new clues. What it did do is dispel the rumors that Cicada 3301 had disbanded. It's possible they had given up their recruitment efforts but it seemed more likely that they were waiting for someone to figure out the Liber Primus.

When January 2016 arrived a new clue was finally posted. It confirmed that "Liber Primus is the way." No other information was provided and so far the Liber Primus remains unsolved, at least publicly. If you think you might be able to decipher it, feel free to click the download button for your own copy. If you manage to decipher some pages and figure out anything new, please let me know. But only if you have proof, I'm not interested in claims that I can't verify for myself.

Summary and Speculation

2012 started with relatively simple challenges that slowly ramped up in difficulty, almost like an introductory course in cryptography. 2013 continued the trend, building on what had been learned in the previous year and adding more philosophical material. 2014 heads directly to the dark net, piles on the philosophical references and introduces the Liber Primus. If these were college courses, here's how I imagine the course descriptions would read:


Has anyone managed to decipher the Liber Primus? If so, why aren't they sharing? Will there be more puzzles or is this the end? Who is Cicada 3301 and why all the secrecy? Is Cicada 3301 advocating encryption and technology or are they some sort of philosophical cult?

We can try to guess the answers to these questions but it's purely speculation. It's tempting to focus on the alleged welcome message that was leaked. The message says Cicada 3301 is a think tank group who advocates liberty, privacy and security. If the message is authentic and hasn't been tampered with then Cicada 3301 feels that "tyranny and oppression of any kind must end, that censorship is wrong, and that privacy is an inalienable right."

These values do seem to align with the many philosophical quotes and references but they also create some contradictions. If censorship is bad, why did they try to censor the welcome message to the secret club? If seeking the truth is so important then why all the secrecy? Is privacy really an inalienable right for everyone, including terrorists, criminals and corrupt government officials? How about liberty, does "Do what though wilt" include violence, theft, lying, or yelling fire in a crowded movie theater? My favorite Cicada 3301 contradiction is at the bottom of page 6 of the deciphered runes. An instruction: Command your own self. If that's not irony, I don't know what is.

Some for me, none for thee
Message for Cicada 3301
A message for Cicada 3301.

Cicada 3301 isn't necessarily ignorant of these contradictions. Statements such as "Command your own self" are so vague, they can be interpreted however you'd like. Are they encouraging self-reliance or declaring anarchy? Cicada 3301 never explicitly proclaims a mission statement so their exact intentions are unclear. Maybe they are religious zealots or some sort of criminal organization, or maybe they are simply college sophomores trying to figure out life and their place in the world, hoping to make some meaningful contributions along the way.

In my opinion, there's no way Cicada 3301 is a government agency or large corporation. Governments and businesses don't behave like this. I'm not saying Cicada 3301 is unskilled or behaving poorly, that's not at all the case. What I'm saying is that Cicada 3301 doesn't follow the patterns of a large organization with management hierarchies, budget restrictions and public image concerns. Professional, well-established organizations rarely say things like the primes are sacred, experience your death, or do four unreasonable things each day.

It seems equally unlikely that Cicada 3301 is a single individual. It may have started with an individual or two but it grew into something more. The puzzles, while not outrageously difficult on a technical level, are too elaborate to be the creation of a single individual. Compared to Augmented Reality Games, Geocaching, or creating treasure maps for your kids, the Cicada 3301 puzzles are on a whole different level. It's more than the worldwide locations, it's the overall complexity and diversity of the puzzles. They feel more like the work of a small committee, like there is a primary leader and a general set of guidelines but also some inconsistencies that is the inevitable result of different people working together.

Ok everyone, I have most of the puzzles ready and now I need your help. Alice, you work for the phone company so you're in charge of that portion. Bob, I'd like you to organize the global posters. Oh, and use your philosophy degree to double check my reference material. Chuck, we'll need your admin access to find some server time and help manage the Tor sites. Imaginary Cicada 3301 committee meeting

Even if the totient function isn't all that sacred and there is no deeper meaning hidden in old King Arthur folklore, even if the entire Cicada 3301 project is the work of college sophomores who are slowly growing up and moving on to other things, this is still all very interesting. It's a reminder of how large and complex the world is. It's also a reminder of how small we are and how the Internet turns strangers in far off lands into our next door neighbors. Some of us are lucky enough to have lives where we don't worry much about oppressive governments, rogue terrorists, or greedy corporations but those things absolutely exist and now, because of the Internet, they can affect each and every one of us no matter who we are or where we live.

Privacy, security, and freedom are not inherent rights, they can be taken away simply by labeling someone as a criminal, a terrorist, or an evil bad guy. I want the authorities to be able to eavesdrop on the evil bad guys as long as the authorities don't decide that I am the evil bad guy. To protect ourselves from the bad guys, whoever the bad guys might be, we need tools such as PGP, Tor and VPN. We don't need to use these tools every day but it's good to know they're available if necessary. It's like having a lock on your front door even if you don't always use it.

I disagree with some of Cicada 3301's philosophies and I hope you disagree with some of my philosophies. Being able to openly disagree is what freedom is all about. I want to live in a world where people can think for themselves, even if sometimes they do stuff I don't like.

Groups like Cicada 3301 help protect our freedom in the same way people like Rivest, Shamir, Aldeman (RSA) and George Zimmerman (PGP) help protect our privacy and people like Satoshi Nakamoto (Bitcoin) help protect our security. I don't have to be smart enough to invent these technologies, I only have to be smart enough to know they're there so I can make sure nobody takes them away.

Understanding the basics of cryptography is important even if we're not secret government spies. Armed with a little knowledge, it's easy to see how ridiculous and dangerous it is when politicians say they want to outlaw public-key cryptography or the FBI says they need a back door into our phones. That's pointless because any bad guy with two brain cells to rub together can figure out how to use cryptography even if it's illegal. Making it illegal would actually help the bad guys because law-abiding citizens wouldn't be allowed to protect themselves. The Cicada 3301 puzzle demonstrates how easily this can happen without the authorities being able to do anything about it or even knowing that it's happening in the first place.

I like to think that logic will prevail and cryptography will remain fully legal and publicly available. I like knowing that there are other currencies, just in case the U.S. dollar somehow fails. I like to hope that we can learn to tolerate others even if they have different values and philosophies. Diversity is important, even it sometimes it makes us uncomfortable.

The universe is a big, complex place and nobody knows what might happen next. There's no telling where that innocent looking rabbit hole might lead. Personally, I enjoy exploring the unknown. It's not an adventure unless there's a chance it might suck.

Some wise person once said that knowledge is power. In this case, it seems absolutely true. Only ignorance will lead to cryptography being banned, all our eggs in one basket, or empowerment of the thought police. I like to think that logic will prevail but the only way to be sure is to spread the knowledge. So go forth, tell a friend how important and easy cryptography is. Who knows, maybe the politicians are listening.