The National Security Agency has probably not enjoyed being in the news lately, identified in the role of W’s personal spy squad. But for those kids who might want to join the effort when they grow up, the NSA offers a web site addressed to America’s “future codemakers and codebreakers”.

Since 1982, though, when journalist James Bamford published The Puzzle Palace, a look inside the NSA, the agency has gradually shed its anonymity. And now it’s taken openness to a whole new level. With the latest version of “CryptoKids,” a startlingly upfront website that encourages young Americans to consider careers in cryptography and crypto-analysis, the NSA is deploying the tools of modern marketing to get its recruiting message out — including cartoon characters with trademarked names like Crypto Catâ„¢ and Decipher Dogâ„¢. The agency also boasts a cryptologic museum.

A while back when I was still teaching math, I was fortunate to attend a workshop conducted by NSA mathematicians. Their goal was to help us understand some of the math they used in their work and develop lessons for our high school students applying those topics. They also wanted us to make them “aware” of the agency’s mission.

I learned a lot in those two days, but I’d be lying if I said I understood all the higher level concepts they presented. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t tell us everything, either. At each session, someone from the agency sat at the back and would occasionally consult with the presenter. Especially when we started asking too many questions.

I wonder if the questionnaire from my workshop application is still in their files.

nsa, mathematics