Cloak & Dagger: Improving Digital Literacy & Security with Spy-Themed Programming

One day at work, I was logging on to my email on a computer I hadn’t used before. After entering my pass-phrase, I waited for a text for my secondary password, since I have two-step authentication set up on my account. As I logged on, I realized that nowhere near enough of the teens I work with have this simple and secure level of protection on their multiple digital accounts. I’m sure many of you share my experience of helping teens log on to accounts where they can’t remember their passwords, or need to try which of their multiple variations of a short password they used. We consider many of our teen users as digital natives, but they don’t always learn or practice the best habits. It’s a clear need, and as guides towards how information can best be used and accessed, it is one that we library professionals are in the ideal position to fill.

But what program on digital security would teens come to? Any program with “digital security” or anything structured like a traditional class would be, as the kids would say, total snoozeville.

And then it came to me: spies. Espionage and spying are all about keeping your information secure while stealing the information from your opponents. Everyone wants to be a spy. Spies are really cool. They are sneaky, and suave, and just the coolest. By emphasizing the security aspect of espionage, I’d make spycraft the cheese in which I’d hide the digital literacy pill. Because tricking teens into learning is what makes our jobs great.

One of my coworkers had recently gone to a conference on cryptography and code-breaking, so I used a lot of the information she found there to put together a code breaking scavenger hunt around the library, which wound up being the centerpiece of the program. Dubbed “Cloak & Dagger,” the program started with a “briefing session” where we discussed how to maintain digital security and craft hard-to-crack passwords, and moved on to a training session on cryptography. Then the teens divided into teams and got started on the scavenger hunt, which included a “laser maze” challenge involving navigating a hallway strung with red yarn. This portion lasted about an hour and a half, and the program ended with pizza and a screening of Skyfall.

Outcomes:

  • Teens build digital literacy skills and learn how to maintain secure digital presence
  • Teens develop a fuller understanding of digital security
  • Teens learn basics of cryptography and codebreaking
  • Teens build logic and math skills breaking codes
  • Teens develop a broader understanding of library services

Time: 4 hours (1.5 hours for briefing and scavenger hunt, 2.5 for movie)

Participants: 25

Materials & supplies:

  • Pencils
  • Dry erase board & markers
  • Clues (in code) inside envelopes
  • Code wheels/sheets
  • PowerPoint presentation & set-up
  • Red yarn
  • Masking/painter’s tape

Program prep:

  1. Map out the scavenger hunt. Choose the locations where your clues will be hidden. I tried to choose locations in the library I wanted to highlight, and especially getting them to interact with other library staff. (In my case, we stuck mostly to the teen area, including the DIY space, program poster wall, and service desk, but also had them go to public desks for using the digital studio and reserving study rooms.) Plan out the order of the scavenger hunt, having clues leading to the subsequent stop at each station.
  2. Write, encode, and distribute your clues. I used the resources at cryptoclub.org to encode my clues. (Don’t make your clues too hard, since kids will have to decode them anyways, but don’t just name where they should go. Make them work for it a bit.) I printed up several copies of each clue and slipped them into a semi-official-looking manilla envelope. I also slipped some “laser challenge” sheets into identical looking envelopes. I then left the clues at their set spots, and gave a heads up and simple instructions to anyone staffing those desks on how to distribute the envelopes. (To add to the spy theme, teens didn’t just ask for codes but instead had to use a secret phrase revealed in the code leading to that location. It was always something cool, like “falcon.”)
  3. Set up your laser maze. I just took a ball of yarn and strung/taped it willy-nilly across a semi-wide hallway we had available right next to the room the program was in, but you could also use a book aisle if that suits your needs better.

Running the program:

  1. Our program started with a “briefing session.” (I created a slideshow presentation using a manilla folder background and the Stencil font in red to create that “top secret” feel.) After outlining the day’s agenda, we first talked about maintaining a secure digital presence. I explained and demonstrated how two-step authentication works, and we talked about creating strong passwords. (We read & discussed the below xkcd webcomic.) We went through several steps of writing strong but easily remembered passphrases, like “TheLibraryIs100%Awesome”.  
  2. We discussed different types of cryptography and how to both write and crack some basic codes. I provided each teen with a code wheel to assemble, as well as some cipher tables (all available through CryptoClub). Then we ran through a couple of examples together as a group to make sure they had a basic handle on them.
  3. I divided the teens into several teams of 3 or less and set them on the scavenger hunt. I distributed their first clues in our program room, and staggered where each group started on the cycle. There was no set “end point,” but instead were finished once they had five different solved clues.IMG_2324
  4. There were a few twists to the scavenger hunt. We’d had some issues of running and yelling and general tomfoolery on previous library scavenger hunts, so I tried to mitigate that by telling teens that, as spies, they were to maintain a casual and quiet demeanor when gathering clues. I also told them to only open their envelopes to decode the clues in our “safe zone” program room. This facilitated our second twist…
  5. …the laser maze! Random envelopes at each station would contain a page telling the teens to complete the laser maze. Two members would need to make their way through the maze without touching any of the yarn. If they did touch, they would need to go back and start again. After completing the challenge, they would receive their next clue.IMG_2329
  6. The first teams to finish win a prize! We were lucky enough to have a local author who had written a novel about a teen getting mixed up in some crazy spy business donate a few signed copies of his book that were perfect prizes, but you can use whatever you have/can afford (ARCs, gift cards, etc.).
  7. We finished the evening with pizza and a screening of Skyfall. I think you can all manage that part on your own.

After the program

  1. Make sure the teens know about the resources available to any with piqued interests. These can include CryptoClub, books on spy craft, links to password generators, etc.
  2. Try to include an evaluation that measures their change in attitudes, if not behaviors, on many of the desired outcomes. (I was really pleased to see that over 75% of the teen participants were more likely to create a more secure password, use two-step authentication, or both.)

Notes:

The popularity of this program came as a bit of a surprise to me. I thought it would be fun, but with 25 sign ups (!) and 100% attendance (!!!), I was pleasantly floored. Over half of those signed up in the few days before the program, which I think was in part due to library staff promoting the program at book talks. It is so important to get into the schools. I repeat, do all you can to get into the schools and in front of kids!

As for the program itself, I think it worked out really well. It was a great way to really highlight the Technology and the oft-ignored Math portions of STEM/STEAM education. In fact, the movie and pizza, which I included as the drenching of ketchup to hide the flavor of “learning,” was the least popular part of the program. They enjoyed it, but were even more engaged during all of the other activities. When I do the program again, I’ll be expanding the scavenger hunt, as well as possibly supplementing the laser challenge, or just having a separate activity, with a “bomb disarming” challenge using the game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes.

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