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Nina In New York: Is The NSA Trying To Brainwash My Daughter? Meh, Probably Not.

NSA Computer work station (Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

NSA Computer work station (Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

A lighthearted look at news, events, culture and everyday life in New York. The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
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By Nina Pajak

The world is a scary place, seemingly scarier by the day. I’ve always been the type to think so, ever since I was just a tender, little, anxiety-ridden sprout. And now that I have a little sprout of my own (whom I hope not to destroy with my plaguing fears), the dangers lurking everywhere have been magnified a thousand-fold. I mean, there’s local violence and freak accidents and mass shootings seemingly every week, if not every day. There’s cyber bullying and sexting and basically everything about the internet is just seriously awful. There’s distracted driving and drunk driving and all sorts of newfangled drugs and I’m pretty sure heroin is back in style? Gah.

Then there’s the next level of danger, the ever-lurking global threat of national security breaches and terrorism and cyber terrorism. Thank goodness we have the National Security Agency to spy on and also protect us. And as it turns out, they’re looking out for our kids, too.

Like most people, I was totally unaware of the NSA’s “CryptoKids” website until I read this piece in The New York Times. It turns out it was launched nine years ago with the mission of educating—and recruiting—the budding young Americans who might one day take an interest in cryptology and code-breaking and email-reading. The site features a cast of adorably approachable cartoons, like Decipher Dog, who specializes in cryptanalysis, Joules, an engineering-minded squirrel, and Rosie, a language analyst and maybe like a fox or something? Plus there are activities like cryptograms, which I don’t understand at all, brainteasers, which read suspiciously like math word problems and make my brain angry, and games, many of which I failed at playing. I mean really, since when is “committing morse code to memory” considered an online game? The good news for kids like me is that they also have coloring pages, which I completed really well, so perhaps I still have a shot at becoming an NSA employee.

Frankly, I’ve got nothing against government agencies creating spaces where our children can learn just what it is they do. Until I had a nice chat with T.Top the friendly computer science turtle, I barely understood the NSA’s function. And I certainly want my kid to understand how to protect herself in this brave new world of social media and total identity transparency online. Clearly, they’ve been at this for nearly a decade and hardly anyone cared or even knew about it. But in light of recent facts revealed by Snowden, this suddenly feels less like an honest attempt at education and recruitment. It feels more insidious, although I won’t go so far as to say propaganda. That’s a strong word, and this is hardly North Korea. More like a sneaky way of endearing the agency and its activities to our youth and getting them comfortable so that one day, when another Snowden comes along with yet more disconcerting information, maybe they’re not quite so quick to mistrust.

Then again, the government never expected a leak of Snowden proportions, so this would be a pretty long and farfetched con if that’s why they’d gone to the trouble of inventing a set of twin leopards (I think?) who travel the world with their super-connected parents and tell kids all about personal cyber security. Plus, the odds of my child getting deep into CryptoKids.com are pretty low. And if she did, and she said to me, “Mom, I’m really good at this cryptogram game and I’m interested in a career as an NSA analyst,” I probably wouldn’t say, “HAVE YOU BEEN TALKING TO THAT INDOCTRINATING GOVERNMENT SHILL, CRYPTOCAT, AGAIN? WHAT DID I TELL YOU ABOUT HIM?” No, first I’d be like, “don’t you mean ‘a nebulous career in some form of creative expression?'” And then I’d say, “Please show me how to solve a cryptogram, genius daughter, because they’re really really hard and that’s super cool and who am I to stop you? Just promise not to hack into my gmail account.”

Seriously, you guys. I very much don’t get it. Where’s the government cartoon cast who recruits people who are bad at math but very comfortable on the page and pretty handy with an editor’s pencil? I’m here, and I’m impressionable.

Nina Pajak is a writer living with her husband, daughter and dog in Queens. Connect with Nina on Twitter at @NinaPajak!