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How The NSA Gets Inside K-12 Classrooms

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The NSA's classroom initiatives are part of the Mathematics Education Partnership Program, which is described by the agency as an "outreach program to promote mathematics and science education at non-profit educational institutions." MEPP began in the early 1990s due to concern among some at the NSA about the future of math and science education. It was apparently controversial within the agency since engaging with schoolchildren was antithetical to the intense secrecy that generally surrounds the NSA's activities.

Along with a "Cryptokids" website featuring cartoonish recruitment materials, the NSA promotes several classroom initiatives as part of MEPP including "summer institutes" for teachers who work with children in second through fifth grades and a program that involves NSA volunteers mentoring students and repairing school equipment. The agency also offers a series of "interactive talks" NSA staffers can deliver to students from kindergarten through high school. Most of the NSA's MEPP programming is only available to schools in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. area, which is near the NSA's headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. A spokesperson for the NSA declined to comment on this story.

The NSA published a catalog of the "talks" offered through its "speakers bureau." For elementary school students, the NSA has counting games, a "cryptanlaysis 101" workshop that teaches basic code-breaking, a career day presentation, and geometry exercises. Since the NSA also provides volunteer judges to school science fairs through MEPP, there is also a talk offering a "judge's perspective" to prospective fair participants. Along with the other offerings, the NSA has a program for grades five and up called "Mission Possible" that is a spy game complete with a mysterious briefcase.

"Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to recover the secret code which holds the key to this briefcase. ... During this session, the class will join "the Agency," an elite group of cryptanalysts and problem solvers," the catalog explains. "The success of 'the Agency' depends upon all teams solving their messages and then working together on one final problem to recover the secret code to the briefcase."

Middle schoolers and high schoolers can enjoy NSA talks that feature more advanced encryption methods. The agency also offers these older students talks with immediate, practical applications. A "cyber ethics" program leaves the children with a set of golden rules for online conduct.

"Cyber ethics refers to a code of safe and responsible behavior for the Internet community. Practicing good cyber ethics involves understanding the risks of harmful and illegal behavior on-line," the catalog explains. "Topics that will be presented include: (1) Computers and Privacy; (2) Crime, Abuse, and Hacker Ethics; (3) Responsibility; and (4) Social Implications and Consequences. The students will leave with simple guidelines on how to make an ethical decision and the Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics."

Another NSA talk for middle and high schoolers is entitled "How To Lie With Statistics." It purports to teach attendees how statistics "can be used, often incorrectly, in non-mathematical ways." One talk, entitled "Defending Our Nation in Cyberspace," provides the middle and high school students with a set of tips designed to help them secure their computers at home. Another talk for the middle and high school set, "Defense Against the Dark Arts - Cyber Security Basics," borrows its theme from the "Harry Potter" novels.

"Just as young wizards in the Hogwarts Academy must learn about dark magic and dark creatures to defend themselves, so must young cyber wizards learn about malware and hackers," the catalog says. "Topics covered include viruses, worms, Trojan horses, identify theft, phishing and social engineering."

One of the NSA talks that is only offered to high schoolers focuses on social media. The NSA's "Social Networking Sites" class encourages students not to be "too open" online:

"Every few years, a new technology or capability arises that intrigues and excites the public. Social Networking Sites (SNSs) are one such technology. In providing a place where people can easily post their thoughts, photos, and connect with friends and family in spontaneous ways, SNSs have seen great popularity in recent years. However, there have been many stories highlighting the dangers
of being too open and free with important personal or business information. Teenagers are prevalent users of SNSs; this talk will help teach them the risks and how to apply basic security principles to their on-line profiles to safeguard themselves."

Whatever you think of the NSA's online surveillance, you can't say they didn't warn anyone about the dangers of being digitally indiscreet.

Photo courtesy of Morgan Lane Photography / Shutterstock