US Director of National Intelligence teaches kids to be spies

The turtle wearing a hat backward, baggy jeans and purple sunglasses looks just like other cartoon characters that marketers use to make products like cereal and toys appealing to children. But the reptile, known as T. Top, who says creating and breaking codes is really “kewl,” is pushing something far weightier: the benefits of the National Security Agency.

“In the world of diplomacy, knowing what your enemy is planning helps you to prepare,” the turtle says. “But it is also important that your enemies do not know what you have planned. It is the mission of the National Security Agency and the Central Security Service to learn what it can about its potential enemies to protect America’s government communications.”

Such an enthusiastic endorsement of the N.S.A.’s mission might seem particularly timely given the criticism directed at the agency since one of its former contractors, Edward J. Snowden, began leaking documents he had stolen from it. But T. Top and a troupe of eight other smiley-faced cartoon characters have been busy promoting the N.S.A.’s mission for the past nine years as part of a governmentwide attempt to make agencies more understandable to the public. With cartoon characters, interactive games and puzzles, the N.S.A.’s CryptoKids website for “future codemakers and codebreakers” tries to educate children about spying duties and recruit them to work for the agency.

As the website says: “It is never too early to start thinking about what you want to do when you grow up.”

To enter the “How Can I Work for N.S.A.?” section of the site, children click on a picture of a bucktoothed rabbit, who says in his biography that he likes listening to hip-hop and rock. In his free time, the bunny says, he participates in cryptography competitions with other cartoon characters named Decipher Dog and CryptoCat.

“As a signals analyst, you will work with cutting edge technology to recover, understand and derive intelligence from a variety of foreign signals found around the world,” children are told in the future employment section. “You will also attempt to identify the purpose, content, and user of these signals to provide critical intelligence to our nation’s leaders.”

Civil libertarians, not surprisingly, said the website was propaganda. Experts on early childhood education and marketing to children said the tactics used by the N.S.A. were similar to the way McDonald’s puts toys in its Happy Meals.

“This is the N.S.A. putting on its best face and the way it wants to present itself without anyone else providing their opinions or making noise — and for children, it may make them feel good about what the N.S.A. does,” said Nina Huntemann, a professor at Suffolk University who studies the social impact of new media.

“Is that necessarily bad? I’m not that pessimistic; it happens all the time,” Ms. Huntemann said, referring to efforts by the government, companies and educators to promote messages to children through cartoons and games. “But these sites have been shown over and over to be ineffective at actually connecting with people.”

Vanee Vines, a spokeswoman for the N.S.A., said that “like many government agencies,” the N.S.A. “has a special website for children.”

“The site,” she said, “is designed to help children learn about cryptology and N.S.A.’s mission to defend the nation.” The site complies with a policy memo from President Bill Clinton that called on all federal agencies to develop ways to educate children about government. The F.B.I. and the Central Intelligence Agency are among the other government agencies that have their own sites to try to educate children about their missions.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees US intelligence agencies, hosts a website that links “kids, parents and teachers to U.S. government information and services on the web…geared to the learning level and interest of kids.” Other government agencies and departments that have websites for children include the National Counterterrorism Center and the National Reconnaissance Office.

Electronic games have also been popular. In 2002, for example, the Pentagon released the video game America’s Army to encourage people to enlist.

The N.S.A. started CryptoKids with seven characters, according to a news release in 2005, “to make researching America’s cryptologic heritage and learning about N.S.A./C,S,S, fun.”

In 2010, the N.S.A. added two more characters, the CyberTwins Cy and Cyndi, to educate children about “staying safe while enjoying cyberspace.”

“Both are world travelers,” the N.S.A. said in a news release about the new characters, “taking turns accompanying their Dad (a computer scientist in the U.S. Army) on his business trips around the world.”

The CyberTwins are now the first cartoon characters that visitors to the website see.

Although the Internet is a “great” place, Cy advises children, “there are people out there who don’t have your best interests in mind — stop and think before sharing private information, especially on social networking websites.”

After reading Cy’s message, children can enter the website and begin to “Meet the Gang” and play the games that allow them to make secret codes.

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