Checking you've paid for your TV licence - internet snooping, or something else?

How is the BBC TV licence enforced? Do TV Detection Vans exist? How do they know if you have a television? It could be as simple as a glorified telescope...

By James Cridland
Posted 22 August 2016, 7.25am bst
James Cridland

A too-scary-to-be-true story appeared in the Telegraph the other week, revealing the startling news:

The Telegraph can disclose that from next month, the BBC vans will fan out across the country capturing information from private Wi-Fi networks in homes to “sniff out” those who have not paid the licence fee.

The Register looked into the story, analysed it, and weren't so sure.

It is possible to observe in real-time the packets in the air on someone's private wireless network and compare that to the packets streaming from a live iPlayer source: if they match then perhaps someone in the snooped-on household is streaming iPlayer live right there and then. But the new rules crack down on catch-up iPlayer that's viewed on demand where the user ultimately controls the packets. There is no way of predicting what is being streaming.

If the Wi-Fi snooping vans even exist, the licensing enforcers can at best identify live streaming. The rules that kick in from September affect people who stream on-demand video, a completely different beast. If you stream catch-up TV, there's a good chance the detector vans, if they aren't the Telegraph's fantasy, can't work out what you're doing anyway.

...and then the BBC made a statement about the stories saying:

There has been considerable inaccurate reporting this weekend about how TV Licensing will detect people breaking the law by watching BBC iPlayer without a licence. While we don't discuss the details of how detection works for obvious reasons, it is wrong to suggest that our technology involves capturing data from private wi-fi networks.

So, The Register concludes:

the Telegraph's article about the BBC sniffing Wi-Fi is complete bollocks

While the BBC may not be "sniffing Wi-Fi", what is the BBC doing about tracking down users of BBC iPlayer without a licence? Because, as far as I can tell, this story isn't entirely baseless.

How do TV Detection Vans work?

The National Audit Office looks into the BBC's financial affairs regularly. This year's statement includes an interesting paragraph, written by Sir Amyas CE Morse, the Comptroller & Auditor General (my bold):

1.37 The BBC’s final detection and enforcement option is its fleet of detection vans.  Where the BBC still suspects that an occupier is watching live television but not paying for a licence, it can send a detection van to check whether this is the case. TVL detection vans can identify viewing on a non‐TV device in the same way that they can detect viewing on a television set.  BBC staff were able to demonstrate this to my staff in controlled conditions sufficient for us to be confident that they could detect viewing on a range of non‐TV devices.  

A few things from this:

It's widely believed that TV Detection Vans don't exist. However, here they are, detailed in a National Audit Office report. In Office of Surveillance Commissioners reports obtained under an FoI request, they're described as "a detector van or manual detection device which can detect the presence of an operating television set at the premises at which the device is directed".

There are at least two potential ways of a TV detector working. First, just like any radio receiver, a TV receiver has a local oscillator which helps with reception. It's possible to detect these signals: they're radiated back out of the TV antenna. Assuming, of course, that you're using a TV antenna.

Second, there's an optical method:

A television display generates light at specific frequencies. Some of that light escapes through windows usually after being reflected from one or more walls in the room in which the television is situated. The optical detector in the detector van uses a large lens to collect that light and focus it on to an especially sensitive device, which converts fluctuating light signals into electrical signals, which can be electronically analysed. If a receiver is being used to watch broadcast programmes then a positive reading is returned. The device gives a confidence factor in percentage terms, which is determined by the strength of the signal received by the detection equipment and confirms whether or not the source of the signal is a “possible broadcast”.

If it's possible to detect streaming "in the same way that they can detect viewing on a television set", then it's nothing to do with your wifi network: and it must be this optical method. Which appears to assume that a) it's dark; b) TV is being watched in a room visible from the street; c) TV is being watched on a relatively large screen for a decent amount of light; d) your curtains aren't very good.

What can the BBC actually legally do?

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act is:

An Act to make provision for and about the interception of communications, the acquisition and disclosure of data relating to communications, the carrying out of surveillance, the use of covert human intelligence sources and the acquisition of the means by which electronic data protected by encryption or passwords may be decrypted or accessed; [...] to entries on and interferences with property or with wireless telegraphy and to the carrying out of their functions by the Security Service, the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Headquarters; and for connected purposes.

...and, the BBC gets its own bit of law, the The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (British Broadcasting Corporation) Order 2001, which allows surveillance by the BBC which:

(a) is carried out by means of apparatus designed or adapted for the purpose of detecting the installation or use in any residential or other premises of a television receiver (within the meaning of section 1 of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949(1)), and

(b) is carried out from outside those premises exclusively for that purpose.

So, is the BBC allowed to wiretap your internet connection? Assuming that the definition of "television receiver" now includes a laptop or mobile phone, would they be able to, for example, legally request from your ISP any connections you made to ? That surveillance is "outside" premises, after all...

Is there more to this story than a flat denial "that our technology involves capturing data from private wi-fi networks" - could the BBC's technology involve, in future, capturing data from private internet connections? After all: the law might allow them to do that.

Theories welcome.

PS: It's probably worthwhile remembering that, at only £145.50 per year, the TV licence fee is rather good value. It also covers the BBC's radio stations and web activity. Additionally, the BBC estimates that only 0.79% of people only watch TV on something other than a television set (though that's still potentially £25m of potentially missing revenue).

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James Cridland — James runs, and is a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. He also publishes a free daily newsletter about podcasting, Podnews, and a weekly radio trends newsletter.