Research for Crash Alive – Cicada 3301
I love doing research and every once in awhile, I’ll stumble on something that is too good to pass on. This post dives into one of those “no way this is actually true” examples of how real-life can sometimes prove to be stranger than fiction.
In my book, the protagonist — Haylie Black — tries to solve a mysterious Internet puzzle to find her missing brother. The plot was inspired by a real-world phenomenon known as Cicada 3301.
Cicada began innocently enough as an image posted anonymously on a 4chan message board on January 4, 2012. Here’s the image:
There was no description beyond the text in the image — no instructions, no past history for the user that posted it, and no payoff for solving the puzzle. A few curious people jumped in to see what they could find in the image, and discovered the first of an elaborate string of Internet puzzles.
By opening the image in a text editor (the above image is a copy of the original — so you can try this yourself right now) and scrolling to the bottom of the text output, you can see text added to the end of the image dump. Here’s what it looks like, make sure you read the last two lines:
The text that was added into the image, ‘CLAVDIVS CAESAR says “lxxt> 33m2mqkyv2gsq3q = w] O2ntk”’, lead puzzle solvers to believe, correctly, that this next puzzle was a Caesar cipher, a very simple form of cryptography that requires basic substitution.
The puzzle continued from there, leading to puzzles that included steganography, a book code that used a medieval Welsh romance “The Lady of the Fountain”, phone calls to unregistered numbers with strange recordings on the other side, and tracking down QR codes in physical locations across the globe.
The puzzle reappeared for the next few years, going unsolved each year. A few people eventually popped up claiming to have solved the puzzle, reporting there wasn’t much to find at the end.
Over the years, there have been a few good articles written on Cicada 3301 from mainstream press, including:
- The Telegraph: The Internet Mystery That Has the World Baffled
- Fast Company: Meet The Man Who Solved the Mysterious Cicada 3301 Puzzle: Claims to talk to a man who solved Cicada (and details pieces of the puzzle where he used steganography, book codes, GPS coordinates, random phone numbers in Texas, and QR codes to solve steps) but without any real ending to the puzzle – it had been shut down by the time he solved the final puzzle he could see. A follow-up article discussed the puzzle in more detail, with another user that claims to have possibly solved the puzzle.
- Rolling Stone: Solving the Web’s Deepest Mystery: Another story of a hacker trying to solve Cicada 3301, with mentions of Mayan numbers, book codes, Caesar ciphers, coordinates, and even more twists and turns.
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There are also groups of people that have banded together over the years to try and solve Cicada 3301 as a team, and share solutions to steps as they are solved. Some of those solutions to known Cicada 3301 steps and descriptions of each year’s puzzles:
Thanks for reading. My next post will dive into one of the locations explored in Crash Alive: the super-cool Morgan Library & Museum in NYC.