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Spy Kids

The National Security Agency’s “CryptoKids” website uses cartoon characters to recruit future codemakers and codebreakers.

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.

The NSA’s public relations office led the revamping of CryptoKids, says Don Weber, a representative for the agency. But in creating it, PR specialists turned to “subject matter experts, both military and civilian, throughout the Agency,” says Jane Hudgins, another NSA spokesperson. (The agency declined to make any such experts available for interviews.) To ensure that children with varying backgrounds and levels of education would be interested in the site, Hudgins says, the NSA held focus groups with hundreds of children, teachers, and parents.

Traffic at CryptoKids fluctuates depending on “heightened public awareness [of NSA] or announcements of new initiatives, events, or releases of previously declassified information,” Hudgins says. Still, CryptoKids is consistently the second-most-visited section of the NSA’s website, surpassed only by the careers section.

There are several other online destinations as well for children interested in sending and reading secret messages. Cryptoclub was designed by mathematicians at the University of Illinois at Chicago to teach kids about ciphers. The site is a companion to an upcoming children’s book, Cryptography: the Mathematics of Secret Codes. Janet Beissinger, a mathematician at the Institute for Mathematics and Science Education at the university, wrote the book with colleague Vera Pless. Beissinger says kids are naturally drawn to secret messages, and since techniques for making and breaking ciphers are mathematical in nature, cryptology is an excellent way to incorporate some math lessons.

“What we realized is that there are a lot of interesting things you can do with ciphers that are too tedious to do by hand,” such as counting the frequencies of letters in a long cipher message, says Beissinger. “The main goal is to use the computer as a tool…the computer does the tedious work and the kids do the thinking.”

Cryptoclub helps its visitors create their own ciphers or crack an old one, called Vigenère, once thought to be unbreakable by Civil War military officers. “You can actually break it using middle-grade mathematics,” Beissinger explains. She says the method entails looking for repeating letter patterns, figuring out how far apart those occurrences are, and finding the common factors between distances of these recurrences.

Beissinger believes that the NSA kids’ site has a good user interface, but that its cipher activities could be more rigorous. “The computer is a powerful tool,” she says, adding that CryptoKids doesn’t fully exploit the computer’s ability to help make and break more complicated ciphers.

Perhaps the NSA is wary of inadvertently spawning a new generation of computer criminals as it attempts to heighten children’s interest in cryptography. Certainly, given the recent spate of headlines about the agency’s controversial domestic wiretapping activities, its recruiting appeal to children will attract more public attention.

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