Digital encryption has made headlines recently, with a U.S. court ordering Apple to help unlock an iPhone used by one of the shooters in last December's attack in San Bernardino, Calif. — an order Apple has resisted, citing privacy concerns.

Amidst this, the Mozilla Foundation has launched a new campaign to explain encryption technology to the public. CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains the campaign.

What's the context of the Mozilla campaign?

Although it's not a direct reponse to the Apple case, it comes at a time when encryption, and privacy issues, are on many people's minds.

The FBI has an iPhone that was used by Syed Farook, one of the San Bernardino shooters. They say they want access to the contents of that phone, as part of their investigation in to the shooting.

California Shootings

This July 27, 2014, photo provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows Tashfeen Malik, left, and Syed Farook, as they passed through O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. A U.S. magistrate has ordered Apple to help the Obama administration hack into an iPhone belonging to one of the shooters in San Bernardino, Calif. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/AP)

But the information on that phone is encrypted, and it's protected by a passcode. If the wrong passcode is entered 10 times in a row, the device will be erased completely. That's a security and privacy feature built into the phone.

The FBI has asked Apple to create a new version of the iPhone software that would disable this auto-erase feature, so the FBI could keep trying to guess passcodes without erasing anything.

Apple has said that such a piece of software is too dangerous to create, and that if they complied, they'd be creating a backdoor to encryption that could be abused.

In a Feb. 21 statement, the FBI says they're not trying to set a precedent, and that Apple is exaggerating the danger.

It's been a hugely contentious issue — on one hand, tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter have sided with Apple. On the other, some victims of the San Bernardino shooting have sided with the U.S. government

But aside from the specifics of Farook's iPhone, this story has re-ignited the conversation around encryption, and how we keep our data private.

How does a public education campaign fit into all this?

The non-profit Mozilla Foundation, which leads the free-software Mozilla project, recently launched a new campaign. It attempts to address the fact that even though we hear a lot about encryption in the news, and even though encryption is a core part of our online lives, many of us don't know much at all about it.

Basically, what they're talking about with encryption is ways to keep your private online information private. Mozilla describes encyption as "key to a healthy internet. It's the encoding of data so that only people with a special key can unlock it, such as the sender and the intended receiver of a message."

Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman

Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman argues broad public education is needed on what encryption is, and why it's important for internet users. (mozilla.org)

And they point out many of us use this regularly online, without even realizing it — when you do your banking online, or shop through a secure website, for example, you're sending encrypted data.

The campaign itself launched early in February, so before the U.S. court ruling — but it certainly has become timely.

Mozilla Foundation executive director Mark Surman explained why the campaign was launched.

"A word like 'encryption' is confusing," he said.

"And at the same time, we see potential threats, like we've seen in this Apple story, to undermining encryption. So we really feel we need to do some broad public education, so people understand what encryption is — both so they can use it themselves, but also so they can understand it's important to protect it."

Mozilla has publicly supported Apple on their encryption stance.

What does this education campaign include?

A few different things, the first of which is a short video. It's kind of a primer on encryption — an explainer aimed at a non-technical audience. The focus isn't so much on encryption technology itself, but what encryption can do for people.

Encryption matters1:01

 

Mozilla says that in the next few weeks, it will release more videos, along with articles and activities. So if you want to brush up on your encryption knowledge, this is a pretty good way to start.

Why should more people understand encryption?

I use all kinds of technology every day that I don't really understand at a technical level. That's normal, and that's OK. I don't need to be able to fix an engine in order to drive a car.

But I should have a basic understanding of how it operates. I should know that there's an engine, and there are brakes, and that there's a steering wheel. And I should know how the car handles when I'm driving on snow in the winter. 

There's a basic competency that's required to drive a car, and the same idea applies to encryption. Not everybody needs to become a cryptographer. Most people won't. But encryption is such a fundamental part of how we live our lives online these days, that I think people should have some basic literacy when it comes to encryption.

This is the what keeps your bank details and medical records private. It's what keeps your private messages with friends and family private. And if you care about things staying private, it's worth learning a bit more about encryption.

Will this convince the public to care about encryption?

I wonder the same thing — is it possible to get people to care about an issue that often seems overly technical and more than a bit arcane?

Personally, I really do feel that it would be great if more people had a better understanding of the technologies they use on a daily basis. But at the same time, as someone who's covered these kinds of stories for years, I know that the minute you mention the word "encryption" you lose people.

But Mozilla's Mark Surman is hopeful the campaign can get people to actually care.

"In many ways what we're trying to do with this campaign is similar to, say, what anti-smoking or drunk driving campaigners did 20, 30 years ago," he said. "Here's something the public doesn't take seriously, they don't understand the threat. And we're going to start explaining it to people, and over time we can start to mobilize for a change."

Mozilla seems to understand this won't be an overnight change, but one that could take years.