Fiendishly difficult dark net puzzle opens for third year

A complex Internet puzzle known as Cicada 3301 has re-emerged online for the third year running with still no indication as to who created the puzzle.

The puzzle takes participants on a search for clues around the dark net and this year’s version, which was announced via the @1231507051321 Twitter account, is rumoured to be harder than ever.

“Hello. Epiphany is upon you. Your pilgrimage has begun. Enlightenment awaits. Good luck. 3301,” read a Tweet from the account.

The competition tests a variety of complex skills and it’s already being reported that the 2014 version requires understanding of OutGuess, a complex steganography tool. Steganography is the practice of hiding data inside images and is just one of a number of skills that are tested by the yearly competition.

"The puzzles are very complicated and require knowledge of steganography, cryptography as well as obscure existential texts," computer scientist Professor Alan Woodward, who has taken part in the competition before, told the BBC.

It’s still not known who organises the competition and many have speculated that a government uses it to recruit new members of its spy agencies, however, no one has ever claimed to be responsible for the competition.

"It could be a criminal organisation looking for recruits or it could be a start-up looking to set up a new crypto-currency, possibly even a bank," added Prof Woodward. "Lots of people think it could be a government agency and that looks reasonably likely as whoever is being recruited isn't telling anybody afterwards."

In previous years the competition has tested both the mental and physical skills of those involved and last year included the requirement for those participating to travel to locations across the US in order to decode QR codes on telegraph poles.

GCHQ runs its own online competition as part of the recruitment process that, in 2013, consisted of 29 blocks of five letters that had to be decoded but Woodward admitted that Cicada is devilishly difficult in comparison.

"Whoever is behind it has put an enormous amount of effort into it. It is someone with quite a lot of resources or a lot of time on their hands,” stated Woodward.

The organisers of the competition stated that a number of people had completed the first two versions of the test that led to an unspecified address buried in the dark net.