Cicada: Solving the Web's Deepest Mystery

www.rollingstone.com
7 min read
fairly easy
How one teenage whiz kid found himself in a world of international intrigue
Marcus Wanner needed a little adventure in his life. A skinny 15-year-old brainiac with wire-frame glasses and wavy brown hair, he was the eldest of five, home-schooled by their mother, a devout Catholic, near Roanoke, Virginia. Shuttling Marcus between home, church and the Boy Scouts seemed like the best way to keep him away from trouble (and girls). "I missed out on a lot," he recalls with a sigh. "I didn't get out much."

Though Marcus was gifted with computers, his mom and dad, an electrical engineer, also locked him down online. He couldn't send an e-mail or register on a website without their permission. To make sure he was abiding, he was restricted to the living-room computer, which they could see. "It was the Big-Brother-eye-over-the-shoulder thing," he says. But his parents only had so much power. "There was no way we could check what he was up to if he covered his tracks," his mother admits. "He's light-years ahead of us." Marcus was a good kid, dependable, hardworking, the leader of his Boy Scout troop, just a project away from Eagle Scout. But he could only take so much. "Until a point, I tried to go with the flow," he says. "And then I was like, 'Aw, fuck it.' "

Fuck It Day came January 7th, 2012. His parents had recently caved in and let him get a laptop. Dressed in a T-shirt and his green Boy Scout cargo shorts (the only kind he wore), he was sitting on his bed, surreptitiously surfing the science and math board on 4chan, the notorious underground forum, when he came across a strange image that had appeared on the site three days earlier. It contained a message written in a thin white font against a black background. "Hello," it read. "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." It was signed "3301."

For all Marcus knew,…
David Kushner
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