Reddit.com is one of the most popular social news sites on the web, and one of the top destinations for Internet traffic. It’s a social chatter site that allows its users the ability to create “subreddits”, which are message boards to chatter about more specific things. Those of you with four-digit Slashdot IDs will recognize that pattern as working like the old Usenet system.
Reddit draws its share of controversy from time to time, most recently when a user created a controversial video showing Trump punching out CNN, which the White House itself helped go viral. But for years, one subreddit has flown under the popular radar, known only to a few who have stumbled upon it like a haunted house on the dark web. It’s posed a mystery that so far no one’s been able to definitively crack.
The Subreddit’s Name Is A858DE45F56D9BC9.
It’s lately been set to ‘private’, meaning you have to be invited to see it. However, its story is better explained here:
Each post is usually titled with a time and date timestamp. Then inside, each post is just random blocks of hexadecimal strings. Various attempts have been made to crack the pattern and purpose, but the content itself in hexadecimal decodes to one of two things: Either nonsense data like images, sound files, and snippets of literature or programming language code, or seemingly unbreakable data (which might be encrypted or might be nonsense).
It is apparent that a bot does the posting, though it has responded to queries before indicating that it has some human oversight. Thanks to the way it seems to toy with everybody’s attempts to figure it out, a whole little subculture has formed around its enigma. The subreddit is known as “A858“ for short, and has several subreddits dedicated to trying to crack it, such as solving_A858.
Maybe There’s Less Than Meets The Eye
The present author doesn’t really think there’s any mystery to it at all. I’m inclined to think it’s a stupid publicity stunt. The content is random nonsense; sometimes it’s a poem, sometimes it’s assembly programming code, a whole bunch of them were pointless GIF files. Its entire purpose seems to be to make people try to solve it.
To what point? Well, in the first place, it’s not that difficult to script, so one desktop sitting there grinding out random files with random algorithms run over them could post all this. It’s certain that the motive is simply to get people intrigued and curious.
Most of the speculators have drawn one of the following conclusions:
* Corporation doing viral marketing. (not likely, since a product, game, or show would have been pitched after five years.)
* CIA / NSA / or some other spook outfit that uses this to recruit cryptographers. (somewhat likely, but nobody claims to have been contacted with a job offer yet… not that they’d tell)
* The whole thing is a show by a single rogue troll. (highly likely)
* Single delusional / psychotic individual who really thinks they’re communicating with flying saucers / the CIA / the Illuminati. (sort of unlikely, but the poster has joked and toyed with people trying to crack it, showing a sense of humor and wit about the operation.)
* Psychology test by some student or university (likely, but it’s hard to see where anybody would be able to get useful results. You could get the same or better research data by throwing 30 volunteers into a room with printouts and listening to them make up theories.)
* Reddit admins themselves (somewhat likely – it’s viral marketing for Reddit itself, to provide something entertaining and some depth for the site by way of its own urban legend. May we just point out that the subreddit was banned in the past, then reopened after months. Somebody had a compelling case to make…)
The Shared Pattern With Numbers Stations
Numbers Stations are a fascinating older mystery with a similar method. Like the A858 subreddit, numbers stations chug away broadcasting seemingly random strings of numbers, letters, or other sounds, sometimes continuously, and sometimes only once every few years or other hit-and-miss schedules. But they’re shortwave radio stations. There’s dozens of them all over the world.
Here’s a video listing ten of them:
The going theory of numbers stations is that they’re operated by governments to transmit secret coded information to spies. That does seem to be the most likely explanation, with perhaps drug smugglers or other organized crime being a second runner-up. A few governments in East Europe have even fessed up to using these stations for espionage. But some numbers stations could also be a placeholder, not an actually deployed system, but more of a test circuit kept open in case other, more practical methods of communications fail. One station, especially, is UVB-76, “the buzzer,” which plays a repeated buzz tone 24/7 and has done so since 1973.
The world of numbers station broadcasts is an intriguing and creepy one. There’s whole hobbyist groups out there dedicated to tracking the doings of these ethereal spooks of the airwaves. And of course the inevitable art project compiling these broadcasts, such as The Conet Project, an amazing 4 CD collection of numbers stations’ greatest hits.
But here’s the biggest and most obvious explanation for both crypto-spewing subreddits, numbers stations, and whatever other variants we come up with: People with too much time on their hands.