The government is still hopeful that it can ask communication service providers to remove end-to-end encryption so that security agencies can eavesdrop on online conversations.
The admission was made in the House of Lords committee stage debate on the Investigatory Powers Bill by Earl Howe, the government's deputy leader in the House of Lords, and minister of state for defence.
"Law enforcement and the intelligence agencies must retain the ability to require telecoms operators to remove encryption in limited circumstances, subject to strong controls and safeguards, to address the increasing technical sophistication of those who would seek to do us harm," he said.
Howe was speaking in defence of a number of clauses in the Investigatory Powers Bill that empower the government to order communications companies to secretly remove encryption. Amendments 92, 102 and 103 would have removed those provisions.
"They are irresponsible proposals which would remove the government's ability to give a technical capability notice to telecoms operators requiring them to remove encryption from the communications of criminals, terrorists and foreign spies," said Howe.
"This is a vital power without which the ability of the police and intelligence agencies to intercept communications in an intelligible form would be considerably diluted."
Howe admitted that encryption is necessary to secure internet communications, but nevertheless reiterated the government's desire for back doors in all communications products sold or used in the UK.
"Encryption is now almost ubiquitous and is the default setting for most IT products and online services. If we do not provide for access to encrypted communications when it is necessary and proportionate to do so, we must simply accept that there can be areas online beyond the reach of the law, where criminals can go about their business unimpeded and without the risk of detection. That cannot be right," said Howe.
Lord Strasburger, a Liberal Democrat peer, had to break it gently that there is no such thing as end-to-end encryption that a middleman, such as an internet service provider or mobile operator, can simply crack or remove at will.
"One feature of end-to-end encryption is that the provider cannot break it; encryption is private between the users at both ends. [Howe] seems to be implying that providers can use only encryption which can be broken and therefore cannot be end-to-end, so the next version of the Apple iPhone would, in theory, become illegal," he said.
Such arguments, however, don't seem to have got through to Howe, or indeed the government, who just kept repeating the usual rhetoric about encryption providing "safe spaces for terrorists".
The Investigatory Powers Bill, as it currently stands, will provide sweeping powers for new home secretary Amber Rudd to approve the interference in mobile and internet communications by the police and security services.
A so-called 'double lock' authorisation process applies, which "means that a judicial commissioner must approve the secretary of state's decision to give a notice", according to Howe, but no judicial oversight.
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