I have covered many international mysteries on this blog, such as the strange story of the Arctic Sea, the puzzle of the Vela Incident,and the peculiar case of the ghost ship the Baltimore. I’ve noticed that these posts usually are among the blog’s most popular. I don’t think, however, that any of these mysteries perhaps is as strange as the new puzzle of Cicada 3301. If you are curious, you will want to read Chris Bell’s account in today’s National Post. Bell describes how amateur cryptographers and hackers were enticed by a message in an internet forum called 4chan in January 2012, which appeared to contain hidden information encoded in the form of steganography. Those who tried to solve the problem soon walked through a door into an Alice of Wonderland world, with multiple cryptographic challenges. This puzzle was posed by an organization (almost certainly not an individual) with eclectic interests, which ranged from Mayan numbers to a British occult figure. How many groups would include references to medieval Welsh literature and King Arthur in the midst of an advanced cryptographic mystery? What was most staggering about this project was not the skills of the individuals involved -although they were prodigious- but rather the fact that their motive and identity both remained unknown. They appeared to be recruiting for some secret organization. Guesses about its identity have ranged from the NSA to the hackers group Anonymous. It could be a government agency, organized crime or a private firm. Some people even argued that this was an alternative reality game. But if so, it would have taken a group with immense resources (or that was very skilled at mass collaboration) to pull it off.
Whoever was responsible for the messages, they were able to entice thousands of people into the competition, and appeared to be successful in recruiting followers. But this is largely rumor, and solid details are few. What is known is that the organization had the resources to simultaneously post physical messages at locations across the globe on the same date, in places as varied as Poland, Japan and Portland, Oregon. For the kind of speculation that this has inspired, look at this Youtube video. And the group is still active, and appears to be about to launch a new recruitment campaign. If you are an amateur cryptographer, or an avid fan of William Gibson, perhaps this new round represents an opportunity for you. Good luck. And if you’re interested in another mystery, check out my post on a possible case of biological terrorism in Brazil. Or you could read my new book Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and History, which examines an Indigenous tradition regarding an evil spirit.
Prof. Smallman, Portland State University