Cicada 3301 — a shadowy person or organization behind two previous cryptographic challenges on the internet — unfurled a third set of puzzles Monday that is already boggling the minds of dozens of potential solvers. (For the full story, and solution, to the previous Cicada 3301 puzzles, listen to our latest podcast.)
Here's how how the 2014 Cicada 3301 puzzle hunt kicked off: Around 2 a.m. EST, a Twitter handle previously used by the Cicada organization put out a message to its 600 or so followers.
"Hello," it read. "Epiphany is upon you. Your pilgrimage has begun. Enlightenment awaits. Good luck. 3301."
As we reported on previously, Cicada 3301 hunts have happened for the past two years beginning each time in early January. The previous two were each an extremely elaborate series of cryptographic puzzles that apparently were aimed at recruiting expert programmers for some unclear purpose that may be a utopian software collective.
I checked in with several Cicada solvers I met while reporting our recent podcast to see if this new tweet was the real deal, and they confirmed that the message has a fresh PGP signature indicating Cicada 3301 is behind the puzzle.
So far, this year's quest involves a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance about transcendentalism and an image from artist-poet William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell with a faint marking of a cicada inconspicuously tucked into the bottom of the picture.
Solvers are also trying to make sense of the word "Epiphany." Several people point out that January 6 is the Christian feast day known as Epiphany.
If you plan to join up though, be wary of imitations: in recent days, there had been a number of fakes put out by trolls.
And also of addiction: "I'm gonna get fired from work for this puzzle," says one person working on the challenge. In the past, solvers have had to stay up all hours and form international and interdisciplinary teams in order to advance from one level to the next.
According to one previous participant who is now just watching, there are about twice the number of people in the IRC chat room as there were last year, perhaps driven by the media attention in the last month and a half.
To hear our full story of how Cicada 3301 got started, check out our New Year's Day podcast: The Smartest People on the Internet All Want to Solve This.