Meet the NSA’s Creepy Cartoon Mascots
The agency’s unsettling Website for kids boasts a growing roster of anthropomorphic snoops
Originally published on April 21, 2015.
The camera fades in to a green field. A butterfly flutters over a beautiful sky. It would be an idyllic scene if not for the giant blue CGI recycling bin with arms and legs, a Joker’s grin and eyes that seem to speak of unbearable suffering.
“Hi, I’m Dunk,” it says, waving. “I’m at the National Security Agency’s recycling mascot.” It points at the recycling symbol on its stomach.
At the words “National Security Agency,” a large glass building erupts from the grass in the background. The beautiful spring day is over. The butterfly flies off camera. The audience is alone with Dunk.
The creature is part of the NSA’s attempts to reach out to kids and spread the gospel of going green. The video is just short of eight minutes long and runs through a list of stuff children can do to make their schools more environmentally friendly.
Dunk is part of initiative in the Maryland education system to teach kids about their natural environment. The NSA debuted the blue creature just a few days before Earth Day, so his presence makes sense. He’s creepy, but harmless.
But context makes him a little scarier. The surveillance agency has a history of pushing elaborate cartoon mascots on children. It’s produced coloring books and a kid-friendly Website. The mascots scamper the hall of the NSA’s Cryptological Museum in Maryland. The agency seems to really want kids to think of spooks … as friends.
An abbreviated version of the NSA’s full video. We apologize for the nightmares.
Lots of official government Websites have pages specifically for children. The Environmental Protection Agency runs several sites designed to teach kids about green living, the White House under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama has maintained children’s sections and the IRS runs a bland page for first-time taxpayers.
Even the CIA and FBI host kids’ Websites explaining the basics of their organizations. But neither site is as elaborate, colorful or … well, branded as the NSA’s with its CryptoKids.
Ah, the CryptoKids. The fictional code-busting team’s roster includes Decipher Dog, Crypto Cat and Sgt. Sam the Eagle from the Central Security Service. The Kids are all anthropomorphic animals. They love ciphers and codes and America.
CSS Sam is a 30-year-old eagle, a sergeant in the Army and the adult adviser of this group of precocious tweens. According to his elaborate biography, Sam is a native Spanish-speaker who “soared through high school,” before joining the military. He now mentors the CryptoKids and teaches cryptology classes at the NSA.
All the backstories are this precious. Crypto Cat was born on a Navajo reservation. He learned the native tongue from his nanny and now incorporates it into his code-breaking work. He’s a volunteer swim coach for children with special needs. Which is great, because it allows him to spend more time with his sister. She has Down’s Syndrome.
Rosetta Stone is the group’s language expert. She’s the daughter of two archaeologists who homeschool her. She loves languages and martial arts. Joules likes engineering and spends summers on the beach with her family competing in sand castle contests.
Each of the nine CrptyoKids has a similarly lengthy backstory full of personal details — and every single one is a registered trademark. This all seems a little … odd.
It’s not uncommon for Washington’s more secretive agencies to blow off steam with cartoons. The CIA circulated an Internal newsletter for years. When it recently declassified many of those newsletters, the world learned of the CIA Monster Manual — a bizarre list of anthropomorphic intelligence jargon.
But that, at least, makes some sense. Intelligence officials got tired of reading the same phrases over and over again, so they mocked those phrases and the people who used them.
The CryptoKids don’t make sense. Who are their intended audience and why was the NSA so worried about copyright infringement it felt the need to register the Kids?
The bios of the cartoon characters contain clues. Many of the CryptoKids are the sons and daughters of intelligence agents and other government officials. It’s possible the NSA dumped money into these strange mascots to help explain a complicated job to the children of its employees.
That may just be part of the answer. See, the site gets regular updates, sometimes including new CryptoKids. A few years back, the NSA introduced Cy and Cyndi, the CyberTwins. The two vaguely cheetah-like creatures are experts in cybersecurity. Both of their biographies are double the length of any of the older CryptoKids.
Cy and Cyndi talk a lot about staying safe online, proper password protocols and where not to browse. All great lessons for kids to learn.
But do we really want the government agency in charge of spying on the public teaching kids Internet safety? That’s like Nigerian scam artists helping senior citizens with investment strategy.
But this isn’t about helping kids. It’s about marketing. The NSA is an embattled agency, one Americans just doesn’t trust. The NSA wants future generations to associate the agency with Crypto Cat and CSS Sam, not unconstitutional mass surveillance.
That’s why McDonalds employs a clown and Chick Fil A promotes those silly cows. In appealing to children, the NSA is employing the same tactics as companies that manufacture cheap, unhealthy food.
Both the spooks and the peddlers of salty treats seek to distract and obfuscate via cartoons. The characters enthrall children. Adults who grew up with the mascots feel a twinge of nostalgia when they glimpse the characters later in life.
The CryptoKids are also a recruitment tool. The student resources portion of their Website includes a site describing careers at the NSA.
“It’s never too early to start thinking about what you want to be when you grow up!” the site declares. Below that is a list of different careers at the NSA. There are seven in total, and each of the nine CryptoKids has already chosen one of them.