When I was a boy, I was fond of a short-lived children’s book series called The Codebreaker Kids, about a group of adolescent cryptographers-for-hire who ran around solving mysteries. It was sort of like Encyclopedia Brown but for kids who liked math better than memorizing random facts out of reference books. I don’t remember all that much about the books, except that they were sort of goofy. (According to a School Library Journal review, characters included “an elderly lady who wants to encode her romantic diary entries to hide them from her snoopy younger sister, and Boris the Bad Bulgarian, a spy who makes Maxwell Smart look like James Bond,” which sounds about right.) But I do remember that they featured a bunch of codes and puzzles that you, the reader, could try your hand at deciphering. I liked to think of myself as the sort of kid who was good at solving puzzles, even though I wasn’t; I don’t remember ever cracking any of the codes. Regardless, I found the whole thing fascinating. All kids love secret codes.
That, I assume, is the idea behind CryptoKids, the official children’s section of the National Security Agency’s website, which puts an upbeat, youthful spin on government-sponsored cryptology. (Actually, looking at CryptoKids makes me think there’s a nonzero chance that the Codebreaker Kids books were a secret NSA project.) “We’re the CryptoKids® and we love cryptology,” the site reads. “What’s cryptology? Cryptology is making and breaking codes. It’s so cool.” You know what else is cool, according to the CryptoKids website? The work being done by the heroes at the National Security Agency/Central Security Service: “Our Nation’s leaders and warfighters count on the technology and information they get from NSA/CSS to get their jobs done. Without NSA/CSS, they wouldn’t be able to talk to one another without the bad guys listening and they wouldn’t be able to figure out what the bad guys were planning.”
The CryptoKids website is designed to teach children that codebreaking and surveillance work is fun, and patriotic, and performed by an awesomely outrageous cast of cartoon animals. The name “CryptoKids” actually refers to a fictional group of anthropomorphic code-crackers, whose skills and hobbies are lovingly detailed on the NSA’s website. There’s CryptoCat, the leader, who grew up on a Navajo reservation; DecipherDog (“or D-Dog for short”), a cryptanalyst who plays junior varsity football; RosettaStone, a language analyst who appears to be some sort of fox; Slate, who aggregates breaking news for a popular general-interest website. Not really—Slate is a mathematically gifted rabbit who can juggle balls with his long, droopy ears. There are others, too. They all look like they were taken from some forgotten Hanna-Barbera show from the 1970s.
It’s all very weird, and I think I would have thought it was weird as a kid, too. What’s the point of all this? Recruitment, obviously. The CryptoKids website also features an extensive section titled “How Can I Work For NSA?” “It’s never too early to start thinking about what you want to be when you grow up!” the website chirps, especially if you want to be a spook.
The NSA has been taking a beating in the press the last couple of days, what with the news that the creepy, secretive surveillance outfit has been engaging in creepy, secretive surveillance of domestic telephone and Internet activity. But we should recognize that the NSA isn’t all bad. For one thing, it loves kids, especially the sorts of kids that might grow up to become creepy, secretive surveillance experts.