Young detectives of yesteryear would idolize the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, or Encyclopedia Brown. But for kids interested in solving a different kind of mystery – the making and breaking of codes and ciphers – role models have been few and far between. That’s understandable, since real-life code experts – those invaluable cryptographers who helped the Allies win the first and second world wars, laid the groundwork for the modern computer, and monitored Soviet communications during the Cold War – traditionally have kept very low profiles. Indeed, until the early 1980s, the hub of U.S. government cryptology, the National Security Agency, was sometimes known as “No Such Agency” or “Never Say Anything.”
Since 1982, though, when journalist James Bamford published The Puzzle Palace, a look inside the NSA, the agency has gradually shed its anonymity. And now it’s taken openness to a whole new level. With the latest version of “CryptoKids,” a startlingly upfront website that encourages young Americans to consider careers in cryptography and crypto-analysis, the NSA is deploying the tools of modern marketing to get its recruiting message out – including cartoon characters with trademarked names like Crypto Cat™ and Decipher Dog™. The agency also boasts a cryptologic museum.
In 1997, President Clinton ordered all government agencies to set aside real estate on their websites for child-oriented pages. The NSA complied (along with the FBI, CIA, and the National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites). This November, the NSA relaunched its kids’ site, which uses Flash animation and features seven cartoon animals, each with a biography emphasizing the fun in mathematics, engineering, language analysis, computer programming, and other skills required for NSA work. Crypto Cat knows the Navajo language, for instance, and is an expert codemaker, while Decipher Dog is a junior varsity quarterback who works word jumbles in his spare time; and Sergeant Sam, a bald eagle, teaches cryptologic analysis and math.
Beyond cartoons, the website also gives clear definitions of codes (symbols used to represent words in a message) and ciphers (methods for making an encrypted message by substituting letters and/or rearranging their order). One section is also reserved for statistics on letter frequencies in the English language, a helpful technique for finding letter patterns that could help break ciphers; for instance, the most common three-letter strings are ION, AND, and ING.
Further, CryptoKids offers printable coloring-book pages, logic-based word problems, memory games, and directions for fashioning a cipher-making machine from a simple cardboard tube. The site also gives information about NSA jobs and the National Cryptologic School, one of six colleges for cryptology in the United States.