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”.
... Eriksson thought he’d try his luck decoding the message from "3301”. ...
... 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.Read the whole thing.
Of course the mundane explanation (and which, at this point, is demanded by Occam's razor) is that some organization--likely an intelligence organizations, but perhaps a criminal syndicate--is attempting to recruit cryptographers. But perhaps there is something more to it....
(Update 1/3/2014): CBS News has a story on the Cicada 3301 mystery.