[FoRK] [Doctrinezero] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/10468112/The-internet-mystery-that-has-the-world-baffled.html

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Wed Nov 27 06:08:08 PST 2013


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Date: Wed, 27 Nov 2013 13:33:55 +0000
From: WAVE movement <info at wavism.net>
To: "doctrinezero at zerostate.is" <doctrinezero at zerostate.is>, "zs-media at zerostate.is" <zs-media at zerostate.is>
Subject: [Doctrinezero] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/10468112/The-internet-mystery-that-has-the-world-baffled.html
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http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/10468112/The-internet-mystery-that-has-the-world-baffled.html

The internet mystery that has the world baffled For the past two years, a
mysterious online organisation has been setting the world's finest
code-breakers a series of seemingly unsolveable problems. But to what end?

Welcome to the world of Cicada 3301
  [image: cicada 3301]

By Chris Bell

11:00AM GMT 25 Nov 2013

[image: Comments]865
Comments<http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/10468112/The-internet-mystery-that-has-the-world-baffled.html#disqus_thread>

One evening in January last year, Joel Eriksson, a 34-year-old computer
analyst from Uppsala in Sweden, was trawling the web, looking for
distraction, when he came across a message on an internet forum. The
message was in stark white type, against a black background.

“Hello,” it said. “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.”

The message was signed: "3301”.

A self-confessed IT security "freak” and a skilled cryptographer,
Eriksson’s interest was immediately piqued. This was – he knew – an example
of digital steganography: the concealment of secret information within a
digital file. Most often seen in conjunction with image files, a recipient
who can work out the code – for example, to alter the colour of every 100th
pixel – can retrieve an entirely different image from the randomised
background "noise”.

It’s a technique more commonly associated with nefarious ends, such as
concealing child pornography. In 2002 it was suggested that al-Qaeda
operatives had planned the September 11 attacks via the auction site eBay, *by
encrypting messages inside digital photographs

  Sleepily – it was late, and he had work in the morning – Eriksson thought
he’d try his luck decoding the message from "3301”. After only a few
minutes work he’d got somewhere: a reference to "Tiberius Claudius Caesar”
and a line of meaningless letters. Joel deduced it might be an embedded
"Caesar cipher” – an encryption technique named after Julius Caesar, who
used it in private correspondence. It replaces characters by a letter a
certain number of positions down the alphabet. As Claudius was the fourth
emperor, it suggested "four” might be important – and lo, within minutes,
Eriksson found another web address buried in the image’s code.

Feeling satisfied, he clicked the link.

It was a picture of a duck with the message: "Woops! Just decoys this way.
Looks like you can’t guess how to get the message out.”

"If something is too easy or too routine, I quickly lose interest,” says
Eriksson. "But it seemed like the challenge was a bit harder than a Caesar
cipher after all. I was hooked.”

Eriksson didn’t realise it then, but he was embarking on one of the
internet’s most enduring puzzles; a scavenger hunt that has led thousands
of competitors across the web, down telephone lines, out to several
physical locations around the globe, and into unchartered areas of the
"darknet”. So far, the hunt has required a knowledge of number theory,
philosophy and classical music. An interest in both cyberpunk literature
and the Victorian occult has also come in handy as has an understanding of
Mayan numerology.

It has also featured a poem, a tuneless guitar ditty, a femme fatale called
"Wind” who may, or may not, exist in real life, and a clue on a lamp post
in Hawaii. Only one thing is certain: as it stands, no one is entirely sure
what the challenge – known as Cicada 3301 – is all about or who is behind
it. Depending on who you listen to, it’s either a mysterious secret
society, a statement by a new political think tank, or an arcane
recruitment drive by some quasi-military body. Which means, of course,
everyone thinks it’s the CIA.

For some, it’s just a fun game, like a more complicated Sudoku; for others,
it has become an obsession. Almost two years on, Eriksson is still trying
to work out what it means for him. "It is, ultimately, a battle of the
brains,” he says. "And I have always had a hard time resisting a
challenge.”

On the night of January 5 2012, after reading the "decoy” message from the
duck, Eriksson began to tinker with other variables.

 Taking the duck’s mockery as a literal clue, Eriksson decided to run it
through a decryption program called OutGuess. Success: another hidden
message, this time linking to another messageboard on the massively popular
news forum *Reddit <http://www.reddit.com/>*. Here, encrypted lines from a
book were being posted every few hours. But there were also strange symbols
comprising of several lines and dots – Mayan numbers, Eriksson realised.
And duly translated, they led to another cipher.

Up until now, Eriksson would admit, none of the puzzles had really required
any advanced skills, or suggested anything other than a single anonymous
riddle-poser having some fun. "But then it all changed,” says Eriksson.
"And things started getting interesting.”

Suddenly, the encryption techniques jumped up a gear. And the puzzles
themselves mutated in several different directions: hexadecimal characters,
reverse-engineering, prime numbers. Pictures of the cicada insect –
reminiscent of the moth imagery in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs
– became a common motif.

"I knew cicadas only emerge every prime number of years – 13, or 17 – to
avoid synchronising with the life cycles of their predators,” says
Eriksson. "It was all starting to fit together.” The references became more
arcane too. The book, for example, turned out to be "The Lady of the
Fountain”, a poem about King Arthur taken from* The Mabinogion
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mabinogion>*, a collection of pre-Christian
medieval Welsh manuscripts.

Later, the puzzle would lead him to the cyberpunk writer William Gibson –
specifically his 1992 poem "Agrippa” (a book of the dead), infamous for the
fact that it was only published on a 3.5in floppy disk, and *was programmed
to erase itself after being read once <http://agrippa.english.ucsb.edu/>*.
But as word spread across the web, thousands of amateur codebreakers joined
the hunt for clues. Armies of users of* 4chan <http://www.4chan.org/>*, the
anarchic internet forum where the first Cicada message is thought to have
appeared, pooled their collective intelligence – and endless free time – to
crack the puzzles.

Within hours they’d decoded "The Lady of the Fountain”. The new message,
however, was another surprise: "Call us,” it read, "at telephone number
214-390-9608”. By this point, only a few days after the original image was
posted, Eriksson had taken time off work to join the pursuit full time.

"This was definitely an unexpected turn,” he recalls. "And the first hint
that this might not just be the work of a random internet troll.” Although
now disconnected, the phone line was based in Texas, and led to an
answering machine. There, a robotic voice told them to find the prime
numbers in the original image. By multiplying them together, the solvers
found a new prime and a new website: 845145127.com. A countdown clock and a
huge picture of a cicada confirmed they were on the right path.

"It was thrilling, breathtaking by now,” says Eriksson. "This shared
feeling of discovery was immense. But the plot was about to thicken even
more.” Once the countdown reached zero, at 5pm GMT on January 9, it showed
14 GPS coordinates around the world: locations in Warsaw, Paris, Seattle,
Seoul, Arizona, California, New Orleans, Miami, Hawaii and Sydney. Sat in
Sweden, Eriksson waited as, around the globe, amateur solvers left their
apartments to investigate. And, one by one reported what they’d found: a
poster, attached to a lamp post, bearing the cicada image and a QR code
(the black-and-white bar code often seen on adverts these days and designed
to take you to a website via your smartphone).

"It was exhilarating,” said Eriksson. "I was suddenly aware of how much
effort they must have been putting into creating this kind of challenge.”
For the growing Cicada community, it was explosive – proof this wasn’t
merely some clever neckbeard in a basement winding people up, but actually
a global organisation of talented people. But who?

Speculation had been rife since the image first appeared. Some thought
Cicada might merely be a PR stunt; a particularly labyrinthine Alternate
Reality Game (ARG) built by a corporation to ultimately – and
disappointingly – promote a new movie or car.

Microsoft, for example, had enjoyed huge success with their critically
acclaimed "I Love Bees” ARG campaign. Designed to promote the Xbox game
Halo 2 in 2004, it used random payphones worldwide to broadcast a War of
the Worlds-style radio drama that players would have to solve.

 But there were complicating factors to Cicada. For one, the organisers
were actively working against the participants. One "solver”, a female
known only as Wind from Michigan, contributed to the quest on several
messageboards before the community spotted she was deliberately
disseminating false clues. Other interference was more pointed. One long,
cautionary diatribe, left anonymously on the website Pastebin, claimed to
be from an ex-Cicada member – a non-English military officer recruited to
the organisation "by a superior”. Cicada, he said, "was a Left-Hand Path
religion disguised as a progressive scientific organisation” – comprising
of "military officers, diplomats, and academics who were dissatisfied with
the direction of the world”. Their plan, the writer claimed, was to
transform humanity into the Nietzschen Übermensch.

"This is a dangerous organisation,” he concluded, "their ways are
nefarious.” With no other clues, it was also asssumed by many to be a
recruitment drive by the CIA, MI6 or America’s National Security Agency
(NSA), as part of a search for highly talented cryptologists. It wouldn’t
have been the first time such tactics had been used.

Back in 2010, for example, Air Force Cyber Command – the United States’
hacking defence force, based at Fort Meade in Maryland – secretly embedded
a complex hexadecimal code in their new logo. Cybercom head Lt Gen Keith
Alexander then challenged the world’s amateur analysts to crack it (*it
took them three hours
<http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9179004/Researcher_cracks_secret_code_in_U.S._Cyber_Command_logo>*).
And in September this year, *GCHQ launched the "Can You Find It?”
initiative
<http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/10301435/Can-you-crack-the-code-GCHQ-unveils-fiendish-puzzle-for-new-recruits.html>*–
a series of cryptic codes designed to root out the best British
cryptographers. As GCHQ’s head of resourcing Jane Jones said at the time,
"It’s a puzzle but it’s also a serious test – the jobs on offer here are
vital to protecting national security.”

 GCHQ's 'Can You Find It?' puzzle

Dr Jim Gillogly, former president of the American Cryptogram Association,
has been cracking similar codes for years and says it’s a tried and tested
recruitment tactic.

"During the Second World War, the top-secret Government Code and Cypher
School used crossword puzzles printed in The Daily Telegraph to identify
good candidates for Bletchley Park,” he says. "But I’m not sure the CIA or
NSA is behind Cicada. Both are careful with security, the recent Snowden
case notwithstanding. And starting the puzzle on [the anarchic internet
forum] 4chan might attract people with less respect for authority than they
would want working inside.”

But that doesn’t rule out other organisations. "Computer and data security
is more important than ever today,” says Dr Gillogly. The proliferation of
wireless devices, mobile telephones, e-commerce websites like Amazon and
chip-and-pin machines, means the demand for cryptologists has never been
higher. (Something the UK government acknowledged last year when it
announced it was setting up* 11 academic "centres of excellence” in cyber
security research
<http://www.epsrc.ac.uk/research/centres/Pages/acecybersecurity.aspx>*.)

"One of the more important components of security systems is the efficacy
of the cryptography being used,” says Dr Gillogly. "Which means
cryptanalysts are in higher demand than ever before - no longer just with
the intelligence services. It could just as easily be a bank or software
company [behind Cicada].”

Eriksson himself agrees. As a regular speaker at Black Hat Briefings – the
secretive computer security conferences where government agencies and
corporations get advice from hackers – he knows certain organisations
occasionally go "fishing” for new recruits like this. But to him the signs
point to a recruitment drive by a hacker group like Anonymous.

"I can’t help but notice,” he says, "that the locations in question are all
places with some of the most talented hackers and IT security researchers
in the world.” Either way, their identity would prove irrelevant. When the
QR codes left on the lamp posts were decoded, a hidden message pointed the
solvers towards a TOR address. TOR, short for The Onion Router, is an
obscure routing network that allows anonymous access to the "darknet” – the
vast, murky portion of the internet that cannot be indexed by standard
search engines.* Estimated to be 5,000 times larger that the "surface" web
<http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/10456108/David-Cameron-wins-FBI-support-for-dark-web-war-on-paedophiles.html>,*it’s
in these recesses where you’ll find human-trafficking rings, black
market drug markets and terrorist networks. And it’s here where the Cicada
path ended.

After a designated number of solvers visited the address, the website shut
down with a terse message: "We want the best, not the followers." The
chosen few received personal emails – detailing what, none have said,
although one solver heard they were now being asked to solve puzzles in
private. Eriksson, however, was not among them. "It was my biggest
anticlimax – when I was too late to register my email at the TOR hidden
service," he says. "If my sleep-wake cycle had been different, I believe I
would have been among the first." Regardless, a few weeks later, a new
message from Cicada was posted on Reddit. It read: "Hello. We have now
found the individuals we sought. Thus our month-long journey ends. For
now." All too abruptly for thousands of intrigued solvers, it had gone
quiet.

Except no. On January 4 this year, something new. A fresh image, with a new
message in the same white text: "Hello again. Our search for intelligent
individuals now continues." Analysis of the image would reveal another poem
– this time from the book* Liber Al Vel Legis
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_of_the_Law>*, a religious doctrine
by the English occultist and magician Aleister Crowley. From there, the
solvers downloaded a 130Mb file containing thousands of prime numbers. And
also an MP3 file: a song called The Instar Emergence by the artist 3301,
which begins with the sound of – guess what – cicadas.

Analysis of that has since led to a Twitter account pumping out random
numbers, which in turn produced a "gematria": an ancient Hebrew code table,
but this time based on Anglo-Saxon runes. This pointed the solvers back
into the darknet, where they found seven new physical locations, from
Dallas to Moscow to Okinawa, and more clues. But that’s where, once again,
the trail has gone cold. Another select group of "first solvers" have been
accepted into a new "private" puzzle – this time, say reports, a kind of
Myers-Briggs multiple-choice personality test.

But still, we are no closer to knowing the source, or fundamental purpose,
of Cicada 3301. "That’s the beauty of it though," says Eriksson. "It is
impossible to know for sure until you have solved it all." That is why for
him, and thousands of other hooked enthusiasts, January 4 2014 is so
important: that’s when the next set of riddles is due to begin again.
"Maybe all will be revealed then," he grins. "But somehow, I doubt it."


-- 
Amon Kalkin
WAVE: Positive Social Change Through Technology
http://wavism.net

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