Move over, McGruff. The trench-coated canine mascot of the National Crime Prevention Council has some youthful competition in the battle for the hearts and minds of America’s children. Now in virtual training on the website of the National Security Agency are the CryptoKids, the code-makers and code-breakers of America’s future.
The NSA, based at Fort Meade, Maryland, has seven CryptoKids in its trademarked menagerie, including Crypto Cat, versed in Navajo, the language of the storied code talkers of World War II; Decipher Dog, a cryptanalyst who learned the fine points of broadband networking from his stepmother, an NSA network engineer; T. Top, a turtle who knows how to design and build computers; and a language analyst named Rosetta Stone.
This Toys ‘R’ Us approach to spying is nothing new for the fifteen agencies that comprise the “intelligence community” of the US government, including the CIA, the NSA and the National Reconnaissance Office. In 1997 President Bill Clinton mandated that all government agencies set aside virtual space on their websites for child-friendly material. Today, these sites serve as recruiting portals for America’s youth.
The CryptoKids were born in February 2004 within the bowels of Fort Meade and, according to Kwanza Gipson of the NSA public affairs office, were designed “strictly” to reflect only the official information contained within the main website. Of course, since the official stance of the agency concerning the recent warrantless wiretapping scandal has been to deny the program’s illegality and to treat domestic spying as business as usual, this strict adherence to the office line conveniently recuses the CryptoKids from having to discuss the issue with children. After all, if General Michael Hayden insists that the program is not “domestic spying,” as he did at the National Press Club recently, then what more could Sergeant Sam possibly add to the debate?
[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story erroneously reported Hayden spoke to the Washington Press Club. This has been corrected.]
Moreover, as Gipson points out, “The site offers parents a safe, online environment in which their children can learn and play.” Parents can be sure that, of all the voices on the Internet, at least the CryptoKids won’t offer underage visitors any controversial information that could lead to a warrantless wiretap. A similar mentality prevails at other kid-friendly government sites.
At the National Reconnaissance Office’s NRO Junior site, for example, an animated extra-terrestrial named Whirly Lizard shares stories–first-person accounts ostensibly written by anonymous children but eerily recited by adult voices. With all the sophistication of a Saturday-morning cartoon, these simplistic anecdotes are designed to boost patriotism and an interest in outer space. In a cyber-chapter titled “Proud to Be an American,” an unidentified young author explains, “I have my teachers, my friends, my pet, my toys, my home, and my family. I have God to watch me. I love America. I love being me.” Corey Corona, an NRO character named for the Eisenhower-era spy satellite, hosts a series of games including Catch, in which the player pilots a cargo plane and tries to intercept various robotic figures falling from outer space.