The internet mystery that has the world baffled

For the past two years, a mysterious online organisation has been setting the   world’s finest code-breakers a series of seemingly unsolveable problems. But   to what end? Welcome to the world of Cicada 3301

cicada 3301

By Chris Bell

11:00AM GMT 25 Nov 2013

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”.

It’s a technique more commonly associated with nefarious ends, such as   concealing child pornography. In 2002 it was suggested that al-Qaeda   operatives had planned the September 11 attacks via the auction site eBay, by   encrypting messages inside digital photographs.

Sleepily – it was late, and he had work in the morning – Eriksson thought he’d   try his luck decoding the message from “3301”. After only a few minutes   work he’d got somewhere: a reference to “Tiberius Claudius   Caesar” and a line of meaningless letters. Joel deduced it might be an   embedded “Caesar cipher” – an encryption technique named after Julius   Caesar, who used it in private correspondence. It replaces characters by a   letter a certain number of positions down the alphabet. As Claudius was the   fourth emperor, it suggested “four” might be important – and lo, within   minutes, Eriksson found another web address buried in the image’s code

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Categories: Cyber Security

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