WASHINGTON – 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.”
With cartoon characters, interactive games and puzzles, the NSA’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 the 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 NSA were similar to the way McDonald’s puts toys in its Happy Meals.
“This is the NSA 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 NSA 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,” 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 NSA, said that “like many government agencies,” the NSA “has a special website for children.”
“The site,” she said, “is designed to help children learn about cryptology and NSA’s mission to defend the nation.”
It also, apparently, offers timely warnings.
Although the Internet is a “great” place, Cy, a site cartoon character, 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.