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Cryptology for Kids!

Spy Games

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

He that’s secure is not safe.

— Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac

In the face of the most recent revelations about the relationship of the NSA to many of our smartphone apps that neither we nor the apps knew we had, it was nice to learn that there is a whimsical side to the NSA. It is known as CryptoKids® and is staffed, in part, by amusing cartoon characters with cute names such as CryptoCat®, and Decipher Dog®. It describes itself as being for “Future Codemakers & Codebreakers.” (Every name on the site seems to be a registered trademark since the NSA doesn’t want anyone stealing its good ideas.) Although CryptoKids®has been around for more than nine years, its existence was recently brought to our attention (thanks to a story in the New York Times,) at about the same time we learned that those using apps to play games on their smartphones are providing useful information to the NSA. According to news reports inspired by Edward Snowden, when someone with a smartphone plays games on the smartphone, the NSA joins in the fun. It uses the information gleaned from the phone to figure out where the player is, the player’s age and sex and other sorts of information that the game participant had no idea he or she was disclosing. The player thought by playing games on a smartphone, he or she was killing time-not disclosing facts. We now know that while the user of the smartphone is playing Angry Birds the NSA is playing Hid’n Go Seek.

CryptoKids® gives us the soft fuzzy side of the NSA. The site has different sections. The section called “Cryptomania®” encourages students to “Dig into Greek and Latin Roots” of words and expressions and explains the origin of many words and phrases that adults would find interesting as well. It contains features that can be used in classrooms by teachers who have no interest in teaching their students to become spies. If used, however, they will almost certainly develop in certain students a fondness for language. And that is probably why in the section of the site that deals with “Codes and Ciphers,” the site explains that codes “are used to make messages secret by changing the words into something else.” (Older readers can relate to the allure of code breaking for the young since in their youth many cereal boxes found in stores advised the purchaser that included in the box was a magic ring that could be used to break enemy code. Children, if not their mothers found this irresistible and many boxes of cereals were sold for the rings rather than the cereal. )

In a section of the site entitled “What are Codes?” the reader is told that to understand coded messages a key must be shared by the users. It explains: “If your friends have the key, and your enemies do not, your messages become secret.” The very young may not be sure who their enemies are but by the time they get to junior high or high school they will have figured that out and the ability to code will be very helpful. It will be most helpful if a student wishes to pass a message to a friend in class and does not want the teacher-enemy to know what the message says.

The CryptoKids® page entitled “About NSA/CSS” contains useful information about the agencies. The page tells the reader that NSA and CSS “provide the technology . . . and the information. . . our Nation’s leaders and warfighters need to get their jobs done. Without NSA/CSS, they wouldn’t be able to talk to one another without the bad guys listening and they wouldn’t be able to figure out what the bad guys were planning. . . . .”

There is a great deal more to the site than a short piece such as this can hope to describe. Some will think it too bad that we had to learn of this from the New York Times instead of from Edward Snowden and will attribute his failure to disclose the existence of CryptoKids® to an unwillingness to show that the NSA does some good things. That is unfair to Mr. Snowden. He did not think knowledge of the existence of this site would cause those who became critics of the NSA because of his disclosures to change their opinions of the agency because of CryptoKids®.

In concluding its description of the activities of the NSA/CSS the site says: “Cryptology gives the United States an advantage over its enemies,” suggesting that the United States is the only country in the world that uses cryptology. That would probably surprise President Putin. He would probably be even more surprised to learn of the existence of CryptoKids®. My guess is Russia’s intelligence apparatus does not have a kid-friendly site. Mr. Putin may now create one, if only to demonstrate that appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, he’s every bit as warm and fuzzy as the NSA. He may be right.

Christopher Brauchli is an attorney in Boulder, Colorado. He can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu.