Cracking the Code of Cicada 3301| EPISODE 1
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Cracking the Code of Cicada 3301| EPISODE 1

(pulsating music) (slow orchestral music) – [Brian] On January 5th, 2012, a group calling itself 3301 posted a mysterious
message on the internet. – [Computer] Hello. We are looking for highly
intelligent individuals. To find them, we have devised a test. There is a message hidden in this image. – [Brian] The hidden
message led to a series of other riddles, codes
leading to phone messages, which provided GPS coordinates
for posters around the world. – A mysterious group has been posting extremely complicated
puzzles on the internet. – [Reporter] Solving the puzzles requires an esoteric knowledge,
computer programming, hidden codes, history, art, and literature as obscure as Medieval Welsh poetry. – [Brian] The puzzle was called Cicada and appeared to be a recruiting tool for a secretive organization
that called itself 3301. – [Marcus] I was obsessed. It was just all Cicada, all the time. I didn’t sleep a whole lot. I was basically just holed up in my room. I really wanted to find the answer. – [Brian] In January 2013, a new Cicada puzzle appeared
with more elaborate clues, surrounding Cicada with
even more intrigue. – There was not a class that went by and not a shift of work that
I didn’t have my laptop open. It was my life. – [Brian] No one knew
who created the puzzles or what their intentions were. – [Marcus] I wasn’t sure if it was like a government recruitment or
some underground hacking group. I’m torn then and still torn. – [Brian] And soon, Cicada became one of the greatest
mysteries of the internet. – This is hugely elaborate. It’s a very, very involved game. (orchestral music) – [Brian] In 2014, the
puzzle reached its height of complexity, with a
book of encrypted symbols called the “Liber Primus.” It’s 58 pages long. – Two of them are solved to this day. The contents of the rest
are a complete mystery. – The “Liber Primus” it’s encrypted, which obscures the
original message, right? And the search space itself
for the possible messages that it could be is nearly infinity. – [Brian] The “Liber Primus” was so hard, most people just gave up. But a small group of
amateur puzzle solvers from around the world banded
together and refused to quit. – [Onecool] There’s no one person who’s gonna be better than a giant group of like-minded individuals
working together. – We have never had a puzzle that we took that much time to solve
and still could not do it. – [Shadow Walker] We
can get into these zones where we focus on one thing so intensely, we become consumed by it. Other people might
consider it an obsession, but to us this is perfectly normal. – If I were to explain
Cicada in just one sentence, it’s a puzzle after a
puzzle after a puzzle, presumably leading to some payoff. Even when you get to the payoff, you are left wondering what
exactly just happened to you. – [Computer] The key has always been right in front of your eyes. Good luck, 3301. (gentle music) – [Brian] I’m Brian Bura. I’ve been an investigative
journalist for 35 years. I’ve taken on mysteries large
and small all over the world. New York, Hollywood, Tokyo,
Jerusalem, Kathmandu. There are very few major
mysteries in the world that ever stay mysteries forever. Cicada, it’s out there,
and it’s an unknown. What is this thing? Why is this thing? Who is this thing? These individuals from all over the planet have been working on
Cicada puzzles since 2012. I am dying to know what makes them tick, what drives them on this
almost Sisyphean task that is Cicada 3301. They’ve spent three years trying to find an answer
to the “Libra Primus,” and members of the group
as still searching. – [Woman] You think it’s unsolvable? – We used to think it was unsolvable, but like now we think it could be. – [Man] Do you have a
printout, let’s look at it. – I’m not gonna magically
solve it by looking at it. – No, no, like it’ll–
– There’s some cool art in there. It’s been our life. – Sounds obsessive. – [Man] It is obsessive. – [Brian] They are convinced
a solution is out there. They’re still hopeful, because one of them actually solved the
first puzzle back in 2012 and got further into the world of Cicada than anyone before or since. And he was only 15 years old at the time. – I’m Marcus Wanner, and
I’m one of the people who solved the original
Cicada puzzle in 2012. I was just about your
average 15-year-old kid. I grew up in rural Southwest Virginia. I didn’t feel like I really
had a whole lot of friends because I was homeschooled. Yeah, I missed out on a few things, but most of it came down to bull crap high school relationships and
bull crap middle school drama. I had a lot of free time, playing around and exploring stuff. And I was always really curious, but what I was actually doing was building a career by accident. My dad was an electrical engineer, and he showed me how to solder and stuff. I spent about two or three years frying every single electronic
component that I touched, because I didn’t understand what they did. I used to make fireworks,
little bombs and stuff. We made a mortar that shot
tennis balls around one time. You take a bunch of Pringles
tubes and duct tape, fill it up with a little gasoline, and you light the gas fumes, and suddenly your tennis ball
is in the neighbor’s yard. I like to use technology to
solve interesting problems and do things that you wouldn’t
normally be able to do. I was just hanging out on
4chan one Saturday night, ’cause that’s what homeschool kids do. There’s a lot of really
disturbing content on there. It’s definitely not a place where you take everything
that’s said at face value, because nobody has a
name attached to them. I was on the science and math board. I saw the 3301 image recruiting people. And I’m like, “Well, how would
I hide data in this image?” There was an IRC server link in the thread that was on the board. It’s an online chatroom, right, IRC. We had two or three messages a second that were popping up in this chatroom. It’s scrolling faster
than you can read it. I don’t think I slept that night. What they had done is
just taken plain text and stuck it on the end of the files. It was pretty easy to
tell that it was a URL, because it was one letter,
two of the same letter, two different letters, and
then two of the same thing, which is, you know, http://. You get the idea. We got to the URL, and
it was actually a duck. We were supposed to take these words. We’ll see if you can guess
how to get the message out. They recognized out and
guess and were like, “Oh, OutGuess.” OutGuess is just a tool that you can use to hide text inside of a JPEG image. They’re meant to be impossible to detect. That’s the idea steganography or hiding messages
inside of other messages. The stego stuff is more
like if you went into a room with a china cabinet and
you rearranged the china in the cabinet slightly, like blue cup is on the third shelf,
to signal a message. Stego tools like OutGuess,
it’s like just trying a bunch of different ways of
interpreting the china cabinet till you find one where
a message falls out. After we did the OutGuess, it started giving us a phone number. We were like, “Oh, a phone
number, that’s weird.” (phone dial beeping) We had no idea what to
expect at that point. – [Computer] Very good,
you have done well. There are three prime numbers associated with the original final .JPEG image. 3301 is one of them. You will have to find the other two. – It was just a generic phone number. We tried to pull the records on it. Some people tried to social engineer some folks who worked there. And it turns out that their
customer support people couldn’t actually access the records for that particular number. I thought that was kind of weird. – [Computer] Multiply all
three of these numbers together and add a .com on the end
to find the next step. Good luck, goodbye. – So Cicada told us that
there were three prime numbers in the original message
that we had started with. First one was 3301, but the other two were a little bit harder to find. They were just the
dimensions of the image. So we multiplied them and
we got this .com address. It was just a plain white
website with a cicada on it and a countdown timer to like
a day or two in the future. Once the countdown was over, they posted all of these coordinates in different places across the world. Moscow, Sydney, Seoul. Got it right there. It’s taped, you can see the corners. Suddenly, it’s not, we just
need to solve this puzzle. It looks the same on everybody’s screens. Who gives a shit where we are? We started reaching out to people and actually figuring
out where everybody was. And that was how we found out some of us lived near each other and sort of laid the groundwork for the community that’s
sprung up ever since. So the QR code led us to “Agrippa.” A science fiction author
named William Gibson created this “Agrippa” poem
that was both printed in a book where the pages would
dissolve when exposed to air, and also on a floppy drive
that would erase itself after printing out the
text of the book once. It just disappears. But we were able to get a copy of it. A few weeks later, we got a signed and encrypted email from 3301. – [Computer] We are not a hacker group. – [Marcus] Cicada said
overtly that they weren’t into doing any illegal stuff. – [Computer ] We ask
that you cease and desist all illegal activity. – [Marcus] They said that
they were something like a think tank, hobbyists,
volunteer-type of an organization. – [Computer] There’s one last step, and we expect you to be honest with us. – They said we were
ready for the next step but we had to answer some questions first. There were questions
about digital liberty, freedom of information,
some ideological things that they were working towards as one of their organization’s goals. I replied to the email
with all of those answers, and then I just had to sit and wait. After a month, I found out
I was a member of Cicada. – [Nox] Marcus and I have been friends since before the Cicada years. It was him who convinced
me to come and try it out. He’s certainly by far one of
the smartest people I know. We met on IRC, actually, Marcus and I. – [Brian] On January 6, 2013, Cicada tweeted out a second major puzzle. It attracted many new would-be solvers, one of whom goes by the name Nox Populi. – I’m Nox Populi. I’m 28 years old. I’m from Alberta; it’s a prairie province, middle of Canada, middle
of nowhere, really. There’s nothing in hours in
every direction from here. It is just empty plains out forever. And I mean, the city sort of reflects it. I have a full-time job. I do these cryptography
puzzles in my free time. I have a YouTube series on Cicada. Hello and welcome to part one
of my 2013 Cicada 3301 series. The whole point of this
YouTube channel I set up was this one big attempt to
explain this to a layperson. So if we go to file a new certificate, we can make our own identity here. I’m terrible at coming up with
usernames; they’re all bad. Nox Populi, I’d actually never intended anyone to hear that username. I was listening to a
song called “Vox Populi,” which is the Latin term
“voice of the people.” At the time, my girlfriend’s
cat was named Nox, and he had trapped himself
under a bowl under my desk and was bumping into my feet and meowing. So it was just the two
things I had at the time I just threw together and moved on. To be honest, I’m gonna sleep with my phone on max volume,
so if it comes at like four in the morning,
someone just wake me up. I’ll get on here, it doesn’t matter. All right, I’m gonna head, guys. There’s sort of like three
levels of the community. If you go just up to the general internet, the number of people interested in Cicada is ridiculously large. There’s things like Facebook Groups. There’s the Wiki. Massive amounts of people. But most of those people have never actually worked on Cicada. They’re just kind of interested in it. Then you kind of take a step closer in, and there’s the IRC communities; that’s more looking to work on something. But even that, that’s a massive group. When you’re actually working on Cicada, you pick the few people you know you’re good at working
with, because you’re really gonna be doing this at insanely fast pace. And you also need to be sure you can trust that if they make a discovery,
they’re not just gonna run off without you, that sort of thing. You get this step in 2013. Every time you take
another piece of it off, there’s just more and more complexity. You get this link; it
takes you to this DropBox. It’s just a DropBox links to a file, and there’s no extension on the file. It ends up being this disk image. So what you would do is boot from that instead of your operating system. It’s an operating system on its own, so it’s sort of like the Cicada OS that you’re loading into on your computer, which is actually kind of terrifying. It’s got the whole Linux file structure. Dig around in there, and
that’s where the song first comes from, just sitting
in one of the temp folders. It was called 761.mp3. If you start looking into
all the different tags on it, it was called “The Instar Emergence.” (guitar music) Kind of classical guitar at first and then starts kind of
getting weirder and weirder. (guitar music) There’s this unique
composed piece of music just for the few people would
ever find it on this disk. The further we went into the puzzle, the more obscure the clues became. The Mayan numerals,
early 1900s occult stuff. Aleister Crowley, Zen,
Buddhism, Futhark runes. Every time you move anywhere in Cicada, all of the other layers
of it just burst open. An exceptional amount of
work has gone into making all of these individual, tiny pieces, meticulously fit together. It’s like opening the face of
your watch for the first time. You have no concept of
how all of those gears somehow work into seconds,
minutes, and hours. But suddenly you can see the scope of it, and it’s staggering. Finally, you get to this
website, and it starts a timer and starts putting questions up on screen. A large part of it was multiple choice. My favorite one is everyone
understands what you mean when you say it’s dark outside. What does it refer to in
the previous sentence? They might have an answer, they might not. It’s trying to make you think. It’s sort of like all the zen jokes about a sound of one hand clapping. There’s not really a good
explanation for what’s happening, but the timer’s going down. (pulsating music) – [Computer] Very good. To attain enlightenment, create a gbg key for your email address. – So I got the invitation;
I sent back my response. I was so excited, and then I was waiting. Days turned into weeks, no response. Nothing ever came. – [Brian] On January 5th, 2014, Cicada released its third major puzzle, a series of steps that led
to a 58-page book of symbols. They called it the “Liber Primus.” – It’s 58 pages in a
language you don’t speak. It’s insane, staggering. We had no starting point. We don’t know if it’s steganography. It could’ve been anything. ‘Cause no individual person knows enough to even start tackling it alone, because it’s just,
there’s too many options. Any one person could work on it the rest of their lives and
probably not get half way. No one particularly
stood out until Onecool. He was consistently putting
out ideas no one else had and work that should have been done and no one else was doing. – [Onecool] I’m actually
gonna show you guys something. Look at this. I believe that this message is a hint. Seek and you’ll be found. – Yeah, okay.
– “Liber Primus” is away. I think this is them saying you guys still have to solve this before
anything else happen. – I think what you were
getting at, Onecool, is “Liber Primus” is the
way because of this message. (gentle music) – Onecool, there’s not
much of a story behind it, other than the movie
“Hackers,” he was Zero Cool. It was the first movie I
ever had on my computer, and I watched it, and I loved it. My brother was like,
“You should be Onecool.” I was like, “All right.” Been Onecool since mid 2000-something. Growing up in a small town in Nebraska, it had about a thousand people. We lived pretty close to the train tracks, and then right across the train tracks is kind of just like nothing. I was in 4-H, and we
would raise these calves, feed ’em, brush ’em, walk ’em. You trained them to like walk circles and be nice looking animals. Growing up in that town, I
wasn’t a popular kid or anything. That was when I really got into computers ’cause I was just like,
I don’t have any friends. Then I found my computer friends
in middle and high school. My mom wouldn’t pay for this game monthly, so I had to learn how to
host my own server with it and set it all up, and just
trying to solve these problems, so I could have fun with my brothers. I went to college for computer engineering and my master’s in mathematics. I work in the field of cryptography. Cryptography is technically a munition. It’s a huge valuable tool in war. So my knowledge of this cryptography, it classifies me as a weapon. So I’m like a walking missile. When I first saw the “Liber Primus,” I wasn’t sure if we were
gonna be able to solve it. They introduced the difficulty
of not using English. So that itself raised the bar right away to be like, well, you can’t
just like type this out on your keyboard, you
have to like transcribe each one of these old Nordic runes. I spent many nights transcribing
it letter by letter. So there’s a lot to the “Liber Primus.” Seems like the more time we spent on it, the more little oddities we find. One of the pages was not encrypted. It was only written in
Runic, so it was a matter of substituting a rune
for the English letters. So that was easy. Another page was encrypted
with a stream of numbers. So the result of solving
the second-to-last page was a message that said we had to seek out a page on the deep web. They said it’s everybody’s
duty to find this page. The number of possibilities
for what content might be in the “Liber
Primus,” like if all Nebraska was buried in six feet of hay
and there’s a single needle, I’ve gotta come up with
some way to find that. Yeah, that’s the difficulty. – So, I did some stuff today when I could fit it around my other shit. – Working on puzzles, I’ve learned a lot, I’ve met a lot of cool people. – I’ve also been like just
thinking about a lot of shit, which I kinda wanna like talk
about our process later on. – Yeah, Nox is our Canadian. He kinda just keeps us going, meeting, coming up with ideas, trying them out, and keeping track of them, and keeping track of each other. – Onecool, did you have anything to say? – I never made it into the
smart program in school. – That’s hilarious
’cause I’m 100% convinced you’re smarter than me. – [Brother Box] (laughs) I’m sorry. – Brother Box is really
engaged in the community. He started the Cicada Solvers IRC. And like he’s done a lot of
programming and helped us with like image analysis. – So could you do one? – This makes no sense to me.
– Onecool, are you fucking serious, that’s not how you– (laughs) – I love Brother Box,
like I think I understand his personality, I think
he’s a very caring person, but he also can be like a total asshole. Okay, how about you put the
answer in an encrypted message, and then I’ll have to
break it, how’s that? – I gotta tell you, right
now our track record for breaking encrypted
messages isn’t so good. (laughs) – [Shadow Walker] I’m feeling
so attacked right now. – Shadow Walker, she’s really good at keeping track of things
and teaching people. Hello, Shadow Walker.
– Hello. – Yeah, I think she’s great to work with. – [Shadow Walker] I can
actually run our words with stagnotech.
– Oh, that’s useful. – That would actually be great. – Yeah, that’s a good call. She lives in the Middle East. I know it’s kind of rough
and she is more in danger, like she has to keep things encrypted and under the radar. – [Shadow Walker] When you
guys just get this done, can someone just like send me a PM, so I can take a look at it when I wake up? – Hi, Marcus.
– Hi, Marcus, are you back? – I wrote a little computer program that can identify characters. – That is really cool.
– That’s awesome. – [Onecool] Marcus is fun,
great with the crypto. He doesn’t like the runes. He likes the steganography side of things. – This is all the black dots. Each of these little clusters up here is a different kind of rune. – You did that?
– Holy shit. – I think it’s a fun way
to spend part of your life, like working on some hard
problem with people, you know. – I do believe that we
have the most coordination of any people that have tried this. – I would consider this group
like good friends of mine. – Okay, well, I think that’s a good list for what we do tomorrow. – Bye, guys, talk to you later. – Goodbye.
– Bye. – Oh my gosh.
– That’s an enigma machine. – We’ve really been stuck.
– If you weren’t persistent, you wouldn’t be attacking ciphers. – [Man] We can’t drop the problem. – You wanna see this solved. I can tell, you got the fire. – [Man] Governments are
increasingly efficient at surveilling their people, and this will only get worse in my mind. – [Woman] I feel like
the flow of information in a society should always be free. – The project we ended up working on was intended to solve a
life-and-death problem for people who have reason
to fear for their lives. – [Man] Someone parked a
van outside of my house. – So this is the van?
– Jesus Christ, it’s real. – NSA is a big place. Could one of our folks
conceivably have done it? That is a very tricky ethical, legal, moral question to answer. – [Man] Cicada believed that
they could sow a little seed of curiosity into the minds of people. (upbeat music)


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