- [Robotic voice] Hello, everyone.
- [Announcer] In January 2012, a mysterious organization
released an intricate puzzle on the internet
saying it was looking for highly intelligent individuals.
The group issued a new puzzle the following two years
until its latest one couldn't be solved.
It remains a mystery to those
who still are trying to crack it-- four years later.
No one knows who's behind the puzzle
or how the latest piece can be decoded.
Why do these solvers continue against all odds?
And who might give us insight
into the mind behind Cicada 3301.
- [Robotic voice] The key has always been
right in front of your eyes.
Good luck, 3301.
(train running on tracks)
- As a kid, I believed
I could sell a little seed of curiosity
into the minds of people.
To think about how to create a society in which
the open exchange of information is encouraged.
(train station announcement)
As a kid, I show anything that is there.
I really like to get people
to think about how things fit together
and how they can be rearranged
in order to create new things.
It may put you on the map to intelligence agencies
because you dabble with breaking encryption.
You dabble with a certain
kind of agriculture and e-flux.
You expose yourself and you may be a threat to some people.
I'm Brother Box;
actually I don't wanna talk about my age.
People are not supposed to know my age, actually.
But I will just keep a brief introduction about myself.
My name is Brother Box, I live in Germany.
I study IT Security.
I remember I played my first computer game at around four,
and I didn't understand much
because they were all in English
and I kinda had to guess my way around.
And that was actually a motivation for me to learn English
because I was tired of asking grown-ups what things meant.
Only my brother knows that I am, at all, into Cicada.
I keep it away from most people
because most people don't connect with us.
Hackers are driven by the urge to know things
and mostly about the things that they don't know.
'Cause a hacker considers the fact that someone
may forbid you to know something as a threat
to their own curiosity.
I believe that the people that are behind Cicada
are driven by much the same mindset.
When I started with Cicada,
I was the guy who asked the questions.
I was the guy who was slow at learning.
Now, I am the person that gets asked these questions.
I like to believe that I am one of the most rigorous
and thorough members of our community.
People value my word and my judgment.
Our community is a bit different.
When you're part of us, you're kinda part of us
and over time you form this bond.
I first got to know Onon in 2012, but I've never met him.
He is not necessarily a part of the core team,
but I think this entire operation would be poor without him.
(speaking in a foreign language)
- Cicada puzzlers usually wrap up within a month.
This puzzle has persisted
and denied us any resolve for three years.
I believe Liber Primus is solvable,
but at this point only a very fresh mind can do it.
Someone who looks at things in a completely different way.
(speaking in a foreign language)
(speaking in a foreign language)
- To effectively solve Cicada,
you have to have a very inquisitive mind
and you have to be technically capable.
And I believe that in Cicada's mindset,
it was important to connect these people
into one central hub.
We took a lot of time and a lot of effort
trying to solve Liber Primus,
and I would like to resolve that piece of their legacy,
so maybe we can all move on someday.
It is that itch that you can't scratch,
and you want to scratch it so bad.
- Hi, okay, so take a look.
So this here is this message.
Well, in 2016, it was a year and a half
before they released this picture.
Do you see this large box?
- Yeah, that's outcast data, isn't it?
- Yeah, so doesn't this look a lot like that tree,
when I zoomed in on it on page 32?
- Maybe that's an angle that we should
at least think about.
You see how on page, what is it?
57, we are using just good old gematria, right,
which I did not believe to be a coincidence.
In 2013, we had gotten the translation
from runes to English
and we didn't know what to do with them back then
because we had new runes.
In 2014, we finally got the first runes.
On the second to last page of the runes,
they said, "There is a page of the deep web
"and it is the duty of every pilgrim to find this page."
- For the longest time,
we had no idea what it could be.
We tried a lot of stuff on Tor;
scanning Tor to find websites.
We found some interesting stuff,
but not Cicada (chuckles).
- The deep web is a vast and inept space.
And unless you know what you want to find in it,
you're probably not going to find it.
- What if we use plain text on page 57 as the key?
On those pages 23 through 26,
'cause it's a mirrored mayfly.
The same mayfly that's on 57.
- Cool idea.
- Literally, anything usable
out of those possibly repeated words,
it is gonna be the most anyone's got on this in years.
- Are the keys to breaking the Liber Primus
hidden in history?
The importance of cryptography and code breaking
goes back millennia.
As long as we've had a need to communicate,
we've also had a need to keep those communications secret.
Even Julius Caesar would send in coded messages
for his generals to read on the battlefield.
In much more recent history,
the world as we know it
might have been dramatically different,
if it weren't for England's
own group of cryptographic solvers,
disrupting German's communications during World War II.
Bletchley Park was home to their top-secret
code breaking operation during the war.
The German high command
would send encrypted messages
all over the battlefields of Europe and North Africa.
- By 1945, you've got nearly 10,000 people working here.
Three shifts, 24 hours a day,
processing huge amounts of intelligence.
- They were confident in the security
of these highly sensitive communications
because of their secret weapon.
It was called Enigma.
- Oh my gosh, that's it?
- That's it.
That's an enigma machine.
It's not a radio set,
it doesn't communicate,
it just encrypts.
I'ma show you how that happens.
- [Man With Glasses] Yes.
- [David] What this does is
you press the letter, any key you like.
I'm gonna press P.
You see Y is lit up. - Right.
- The clever part is
if I press P again
I don't get Y,
I get a different letter.
For every key pressed
it completely changes the encryption.
Knowing how it functioned was the start of the story,
but it's not the end of the story by any means.
What helped them break this machine
to understand the messages sent on it
was to understand, basically,
how the operators misused it.
The key to breaking Enigma was cribbing.
If you could guess part of a message,
and you knew what letters spelled that plain text,
you could then offer that up against the cipher text
and start to establish relationships.
One of the mistakes the Germans made
was to be predictable in their language.
Common words were things like weather forecast.
The Germans had weather ships out the Atlantic
that sent weather forecasts back every day.
So, everyday they're sending a message,
the first word which is weather forecast.
If you know what those messages are
you got a crib into them.
So, you used the really dull, boring messages
that you can guess the content of
to unlock the ones that have the real secrecy.
- [Man With Glasses] How does the lessons of Enigma
help us solve Cicada?
- Just look at the six sequence of runes.
One option is to use cribs
to guess phrases that you think
might be what that message says.
And if you do that, you can then see patterns
between the runes and your plain text characters.
And these are the tools
that cryptographers have used throughout history.
- Didn't you say that
the English cribbed for German curse words?
- Yeah, they did.
They were cribbing for swears in German
'cause they knew about the length of them
and the Germans wouldn't stop swearing at each other.
That and weather reports are the two biggest things
they used for cribbing.
When trying to figure out all this (laughs)
- And also the Heil Hitler... - (foreign word spoken)
- So, Box?
- That's me!
I'm 12000 percent fed up with outguess.
I don't ever want to hear that word ever again.
- We're just gonna go over
what we've done in like the last week or so.
The long and short of that is we got this giant list
which is every giant string of runes
that you've tried to encrypt.
Look, a numerical value of its fitness with English.
- It looks like it has a great strength and a great weakness
because it checks for n-grams in order
which could be helpful for partially decrypted words.
- This was used when they were getting
partial decryptions on Enigma.
So that's what we did this weekend.
I don't remember...
I don't remember days, they all blend together.
- We have done so much automation on this
that the actual solution, if there is one,
is probably one that has to be guided by human brain.
- We need something more advanced.
- My partners, we need to put
our beautiful little heads to it.
- Around 11 o'clock at night,
is usually when we all kinda
get together for our hangouts.
We go for maybe three or four hours
at once every night.
I also spend some time outside of it thinking about it.
There's a lot of that in computing
where you're not working and typing it
because you don't really know yet how to form it.
You have to think it through and then you just go.
People have been so burned out trying this.
So many people have thrown up their hands.
They get frustrated with this
because it's like a big wall of text.
If Craig can help us, even decrypt one page,
that would be the biggest break we've had since 2014.
- Hi! - Hey!
- Come on in. - How's it going?
- Onecool is connecting with Craig Bauer,
one of the world top crypto experts,
in hopes of gaining some insight
in order to crack the Liber Primus.
Bauer's a former resident historian at the N.S.A.
And has literally written the book
on famous unsolved puzzles.
- Gematria Primus, this was what they revealed
through one of the puzzles
and that was used directly
to decode some pages.
So, it's mapping from rune to English letter.
Very last page of this, it translates directly here to P.
The next one was A.
So, this says parable.
- [Craig] So, it was the last page
the only one that was a substitution cipher?
- That's a great question.
The second to last page
was encrypted with a stream of numbers.
So, that gave us the 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.
- I mean, we know that Cicada's obsessed
with prime numbers forgetting about
this rune correspondence.
It sounds like they have
really modern implementations like steganography,
and things you have to look for through outguess.
- Yeah. - It's not just flat out
math, math, math, right? - Yeah.
- And maybe the key is text,
in which case, Friedman's Attack
and its generalizations would be a good approach.
- [Narrator] William Friedman was a geneticist
who took on cryptography as a hobby.
He later became the first Chief Cryptologist at the N.S.A.
Friedman invented a technique
of putting two texts side by side
and counting the number of times
that identical letters appeared
in the same position in both texts.
Friedman's Attack looked at the frequency
certain letters appeared
and was thereby able to determine
whether it was a simple or a complex encoded message.
All this may not sound like much;
it greatly reduces the nearly infinite possibilities
you have to try on a puzzle like the Liber Primus.
- So, Friedman's Attack would basically
look at the pairings most likely
to give you the letter you see.
- So, those very infrequent letters,
then you can kind of discard
and focus on the common English letters,
Right? - Yes.
You might be missing a few letters
where rarer letters came into play,
but it would just be like reading a book
with a lot of typos. - Really, wow.
That's fascinating 'cause its kind of like
taking the analysis we've done
and really taking it a step further.
'Cause I hadn't, I've never heard of that
and those are kind of the types of ciphers
that are great to know about
because we've really been stuck.
We can't drop the problem,
so we're gonna try this
and I'll kinda get back to the guys
about your thoughts on it.
I'm sure you've been in a situation
where you're like, "I need to figure it out
"and I can't just let it go"
because you're stubborn. - Sure.
I'm just pleased that it gave a little bit of a prod
to someone to do that
and now maybe it'll come full circle and help us.
If you weren't persistent,
you wouldn't be attacking ciphers.
I mean, it demands
that kind of personality. - Yeah.
(calming music) (crickets chirping)
- Nox and I are headed to meet Elonka Dunin.
She's a noted code breaker
best known for her expertise
with the C.I.A.'s Kryptos puzzle.
She even runs her own solving community,
attempting to break the puzzle's famous last section.
- Can you help us put Cicada
in some type of context of crypto puzzles,
of the larger world that you're so familiar with.
- You know more about the details
of what's going on.
'Cause I have people send me codes two, three times a week.
- I can actually show you
if you want. - Sure, sure, sure!
- Typically, the sort of classical cryptography,
letter shifting, Vigenère-- all that sort of style
of cryptography they don't do as much of.
A lot of what they've done has been like
RSA break. - Techy.
- So this really, we were kind of
unprepared for what they gave us,
which is 58 encrypted pages,
either every section or every page
has a different encoding,
like encryption. - Okay, okay.
- We've only decrypted two in (chuckles) three years.
You're welcome to look through it
as much as you want. - Okay.
- This one, the key was.
It's running key the length of the page.
It's the totient of the prime sequence.
So, it's, yeah. - Okay
- Like, you see, yeah. - Okay.
- (laughs) You see the issues - Okay
- we're having.
We've been doing a lot with the law of probabilities of
quadgrams and trigrams. - Oooh, okay, good.
- And-- - You really wanna solve this.
Yeah, that's great! Okay!
So, I'm just trying to...
- It's a lot, I know. - Build my mental map.
So, I'm just brainstorming,
okay, as I'm looking through this.
So, the first thing is I'm looking at the marginalia.
Is it the same on each page?
- No, and almost on one of it
we've actually identified
what it's supposed to be. - (gasps)
This look like Bacon.
I don't mean edible bacon. - No, no, no...
- I mean Francis Bacon. - Francis Bacon.
- Really? - Right.
- Yeah. - Interesting.
- Okay, Okay, keep going. - Okay, I've never
- I never heard that...
- This could also be a Bacon Cipher.
So, I tend to think about
the psychology of whoever's creating this.
Whoever's creating these
is thinking, "Wow, I've got a lot of smart people
"that are gonna crack this within weeks, you know, days.
"I gotta make something really hard."
Let's assume that it's the same person.
That it's one person.
I would wanna see all the different puzzles
that they've done, kind of all lined up.
That's one of the ways I crack code.
It's not cracking the code
but understanding the mind of who created the code,
like some of these hacker codes that I've cracked.
Some of it is code solving, but some of it is:
Okay, who wrote this?
Okay, it was this guy,
who's the guy that runs the convention.
Okay, when did he write this?
He probably wrote it the day before the convention
'cause he was late on everything else.
So, he's sleep deprived,
he's probably drunk. (Nox laughs)
What kinds of mistakes are they gonna make?
Instead of shifting left, they're gonna shift right.
There's the word 'the', right?
And then the rest of it
just kind of zips open, right? - Then it goes.
- But what if there is no answer?
What if someone created this and they just,
they're obviously computer savvy
and maybe they wrote something to generate random runes.
So, this dump may not be solvable.
- Yeah, it absolutely crossed my mind
and kinda horrified me
that I might be working on something impossible.
- You wanna see this solved.
I can tell, you got the fire, why?
- I mean, for me, in the long run,
if say, Cicada's unsolvable,
if I never find out who it is,
the things I have learned,
especially, and the people I have met
and learned from them along the way
has been so worth it
that if it's the 17 year old kid laughing about it,
that's fine 'cause I learned this much about cryptography.
(slightly upbeat music)
- Elonka made a great point when she said we needed
to get into the mind of the creator.
We found a great potential lead.
He's one of the world's top puzzle makers
and he created a game with a connection to Cicada
we can't ignore.
Adrian Hon is a leader in the field
of what's called ARGs, or alternate reality games.
His clients include corporations and media outlets
looking to build buzz around their content.
And his games have been played
by millions of devoted fans.
Does it surprise you that
puzzles and secret codes so appeals to us?
- People want to believe there is a sense of order
in the universe and that you have people who,
from the dawn of time,
they look up and they look at the stars
and they think, "Why are the stars in these shapes?"
"Why is there a flood today?"
There's always been this appeal of people
trying to understand the world
and other people trying to create puzzles
to hide knowledge, maybe to make themselves seem
more mysterious or more powerful than they really are.
- In early 2011, your approach to create
a suite of puzzles in support
of this BBC show on mathematics
called The Code. - Correct
- They want to make mathematics
more interesting for a younger audience.
Young people like games,
so let's see if we can go and turn
learning how mathematics interacts with nature
into the TV show.
Everything from prime numbers,
geometry, and how birds flock together
and we think, "How can we use those concepts
"in a treasure hunt and weave them into the program?"
- As you know, the one that interests us most
is the very first one.
- Cicadas are known for having a gestation period
which is linked to prime numbers.
Prime numbers are at the heart of nature
and the heart of mathematics.
- That puzzle comes out in June 2011.
- Six months later, Cicada 3301
makes its international debut.
- It's a big coincidence.
- There are some people who have brought up the fact
that whoever's behind Cicada 3301
would have to be a very accomplished game maker.
- Sure. - You would be a candidate
to be that person.
- That's true, I mean, Cicada 3301
has a lot in common with the games we've made.
I think that's one big difference (chuckles)
is that normally when we make alternate reality games,
we do it for money.
And it's not so clear to understand
where the funding for Cicada 3301 is coming from.
- Would you be disappointed or secretly thrilled,
if 30 years from now,
we still don't know who Cicada 3301 is?
- I'd be delighted if no one knows
who he is. - Why?
- Because I think that when most of the puzzles
that we make are made to be solved.
And clearly, this is a very different one.
Not everything has to be solved overnight,
maybe it'll take 50 years or a hundred years
and it's better for it.
(soft calming music)
- [Girl] My name is Shadowwalker
and I live on the internet now.
- [Man] The game is, "Can you keep your identity secret?"
- We do amazing things here at N.S.A.
- Every time there's this government intervention,
you're going, okay which side are we getting?
- This is the world that we're living in.
This is why we're going to need Cicada.
- [Announcer] If you release this tool,
and you save somebody's life,
is it still a game?