May 1, 2015
NSA Publishes Children’s Coloring Book
by Josh Cohen
You know they’ve been monitoring you. Your phone calls, your emails, your search history. Your digital footprint is not private, and from it, spying eyes can piece together even more about you: fundamentally personal things. What are you looking for in the world? What do you lack? What do you want?
The National Security Agency, in its vast and near-infinite possession of metadata, has determined the answer to those questions is a coloring book. An NSA-themed one. For children.
“Hey kids, are you ready to have some CryptoKid fun?” America’s CryptoKids: Future Codemakers & Codebreakers begins. The speaker is Crypto Cat, who we’ll later learn to be an Information Assurance Analyst and field hockey enthusiast. She wants America’s children to color the pages and complete the brain teasers that follow, and to go to nsa.gov/kids for even more once they’ve finished.
Aside from her felineness and acknowledgement of fun, Crypto Cat doesn’t match the expected image of an NSA representative. She wears a crop top turtleneck, cargo pants, and sneakers, which she props up coolly on the desk in front of her. There is no computer on that desk; she’s working with a pad and pencil. Behind her, a corkboard with various papers, one which reads THINK; to its right is a dream catcher, to its left a lacrosse stick. Beneath her, a photo of Decipher Dog, another of the CryptoKid gang, and four books—three with their spines legible: Codes, Ciphers, and Native American, for some reason.
On every page, the CryptoKids look happy, exciting, and engaging—snowboarding and playing guitar and travelling the world. When computers are depicted, they are in notably unbusinesslike contexts: T. Top the goateed turtle appears to be playing a first-person shooter, while Cyndi’s Bug Hunt asks kids to take their crayons and help her clear the computer viruses from her bedroom.
That this is propaganda is so obvious it insults the intelligence of anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of what the NSA and propaganda are. A government organization vaguely presents elements of its work alongside adorable cartoon characters enjoying themselves. This makes the organization appear harmlessly fun by association. Naturally, no context is provided to frame the organization in terms of who actually comprises it and what it actually does. It’s a branding maneuver, meant to create a positive first impression by capitalizing on kids’ ignorance to what the NSA is, because who sat their children down and explained Edward Snowden to them?
None of this should be a surprise. Not because the NSA is particularly shadowy; kid-centric outreach just isn’t uncommon for the U.S. government. Here’s the FBI’s kids site. And the CIA’s. And the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’.
It’s not worth getting too aghast over something like CryptoKids, as the called-for level of aghastness is global to the point of futility.
What the NSA is doing in putting out CryptoKids is pretty futile as well. At least kids these days, with their fancy Internet machines, can Ask Jeeves themselves to any of these sites at a whim. But for an elementary schooler, acquiring a physical book requires some grown-up aid—which means the onus is on the adult, not the member of the target demographic, to say, “Yes, this NSA coloring book is an ideal learning tool for my seven-year-old.”
I haven’t gotten my hands on a copy of CryptoKids, for fear of it containing a bug to record the Melville House office. But considering the recent appearance of Dunk, the NSA’s muscular anthropomorphic recycling bin mascot of Earth Day, I can’t imagine much money or effort was spent on this coloring book. Dunk is the stuff of surrealistic terror, a Rene Magritte PSA brought to life with an ’80s-era Macintosh. The NSA clearly didn’t spend much on animating Dunk, and I pray invested even less in conceiving of him. From the appearance and content of CryptoKids, you can safely assume it was churned out without much care or thought.
That’s an easy trap to fall into when you’re marketing to kids, who are rightfully considered not the most thoughtful consumers, but wrongfully dismissed as entirely undiscerning. It’s the kind of perspective on the demographic that treats coloring books as a tool to shut kids up first and spur creativity second. If a parent or guardian presents a child with a choice CryptoKids or, say, a coloring book of Frozen—which ranks pretty high up there on the kid-tested, parent-approved inspiration-of-creativity scale—there’s going to be a lot of black-and-white Decipher Dogs.
CryptoKids is a lazy coloring book at a time when coloring books, as a genre, are at their most popularly respected. As CNN reports, coloring books have soared up Amazon’s bestseller list of late, marketed to stressed and screen-wearied adults looking for a recreational outlet. They have Zen titles like Secret Garden and Balance, promoting mindfulness more than excitement, with more intricate illustrations with which to work. As more adults buy these books, and more adults want to instill ideals like mindfulness in their kids from a young age, you can see at least a partial shift in how parents represent their children’s purchasing power.
Not only is the NSA creepy and misguided, it’s also ill informed on industry trends. Makes sense for a publishing newcomer, but considering it can track what we’re doing on Amazon, you’d think it would know these things.
Josh Cohen is a contributing editor for MobyLives.