Two years ago on January 4, 2012, a handful of people using the infamous website 4chan stumbled upon a mysterious message.
Those who took on the challenge had no idea how far down the rabbit hole they were about to go.
The first clue, the image, had a line of text hidden in the code: TIBERIVS CLAVDIVUS CAESAR says “lxxt>33m2mqkyv2gsq3q=w]O2ntk” Using the Caesar cipher, a simple code technique where each letter is replaced by another letter a certain number of places away in the alphabet – in this case, four places, since Tiberius was the fourth emperor – the clue hunters realized that the text was a URL.
The URL took them to a picture of a plastic duck.
Of course, the story does not end here.
The phrasing of the comment struck some people as unusual or forced. Someone guessed that the words had something to do with the decryption program OutGuess. Another hidden message led to a sub-board on Reddit where encrypted lines from a book were being posted every few hours. And the cycle went on. Lines from a poem originally only available on a floppy disk that erased itself as soon as the poem was read were only the tip of the iceberg. Eventually, a physical clue was made available: 14 GPS coordinates around the world, as far apart as Warsaw, Paris, Seattle, Seoul, Arizona, California, New Orleans, Miami, Hawaii and Sydney, leading to posters on a lamppost, with the cicada image and a QR code.
After this, the story becomes darker.
Leading into an address deep in the darknet, a hidden portion of the internet accessible by specific routers and unsearchable by most search engines, the trail suddenly went cold. After a specific number of people reached the page, it shut down with the terse sentence: “We want the best, not the followers.”
Rumour has it that private emails were sent to those smart – and lucky – enough to reach the final site in time, detailing further instructions. What those instructions were, only a few are privileged enough to know. The hunt had ended.
Until it started up again on January 4, 2013. Another frantic hunt lasting a few weeks again accepted a handful of solvers before shutting down. The 2013 hunt included a Twitter account spewing random numbers, ancient Hebrew code tables, more locations for physical clues in places like Moscow, Okinawa and Dallas.
What is the purpose of this hunt? Many speculate that it is an intelligence organization or a private security firm, looking to recruit the world’s best cryptographers and internet hackers. Comparisons to the US Air Force Cyber Command’s coded logo contest in 2010, or the Halo 2 “I Love Bees” promotional project, but there is very little information to go on. The winners of this contest seem content to work in the shadows.