BBC Now Training Its Secret, Likely Imaginary, Fleet Of Detector Vans On Your WiFi

from the is-this-really-a-good-use-of-resources? dept

Nearly a decade ago, we wrote about the fact that the BBC supposedly has a fleet of totally secret “detector” vans that drive around trying to figure out who was watching the BBC without paying for it. As you probably know, if you live in the UK, you’re forced to buy a BBC license if you have a TV or a TV turner card. And, for years, they’ve claimed to have had these magical detector vans. When we wrote about them in 2008, it was because a freedom of information request to find out about the vans was denied for the most ridiculous of reasons: revealing the details of the vans “would damage the public’s perception of the effectiveness of the TV detector vans.” In other words, the “vans” — if they exist at all — were more about scaring people into paying, rather than actually detecting those watching the BBC without a license.

Either way, those vans are back in the news, after the Telegraph reported that the vans have now been outfitted with apparent WiFi detection tools as well to go after people watching the BBC online without paying:

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 corporation has been given legal dispensation to use the new technology, which is typically only available to crime-fighting agencies, to enforce the new requirement that people watching BBC programmes via the iPlayer must have a TV licence.

A researcher interviewed in the article suggests — without actual knowledge — that the system could work in a manner in which the BBC’s iPlayer deliberately sends packets of certain sizes, and then the van could use a packet sniffer to look for matching sized packets, without actually capturing any of the actual internet traffic. In other words, it might make use of certain forms of (you guessed it…) metadata. Of course, this is all speculation, and given the earlier reports on the van’s Potemkin Village nature, it pays to be skeptical that the vans really do anything at all, beyond trying to scare people into paying licensing fees. After lots of people ran with the Telegraph’s original claims, it now appears (thankfully) that at least some reporters are finally skeptical of these special new “WiFi snooping” vans.

Even if the vans don’t really work (or exist), it still should serve as a clear reminder of how surveillance efforts are at least a constant temptation for those in power, allowing what was officially put in place for “national security” to creep into totally unrelated areas. If media companies could actually build a van to cruise around and sniff WiFi looking for pirates, does anyone really think they wouldn’t do so?

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Comments on “BBC Now Training Its Secret, Likely Imaginary, Fleet Of Detector Vans On Your WiFi”

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43 Comments
astroboi says:

VAn hoax

One article indicated that it costs more for a “colour” license than a black & white version. How would anybody detect if you were fibbing about your tvs attributes? And what if the evil “evader” forsook wi-fi and wireless and hooked up all his kit with cat 5 cable? And since most of the interesting BBC stuff winds up on usenet and torrents anyway, how could they possibly discover people viewing downloaded files? If that were possible wouldn’t the MPAA and their friends be out there with their own vans?

Vidiot (profile) says:

Re: Re: VAn hoax

A B/W telly receives color… wait, I meant “colour”… signals, but displays them in black and white. License pricing was intended to accommodate the impoverished viewer, who likely couldn’t afford a color-capable set. These days, if you’ve got a black and white set, you must be a collector of rare, vintage electronics — so, by that same logic, should be surcharged for having enough disposable income to dabble in such an elitist hobby.

wereisjessicahyde (profile) says:

Re: VAn hoax

“One article indicated that it costs more for a “colour” license than a black & white version. How would anybody detect if you were fibbing about your tvs attributes?”

It’s true, the black and white licence is cheaper. £145.50 for colour vs £49.00 for a black and white – per year, per household. And they can’t tell.

“And what if the evil “evader” forsook wi-fi and wireless and hooked up all his kit with cat 5 cable?”

Doesn’t matter either way, the whole “detection” thing is BS.

“And since most of the interesting BBC stuff winds up on usenet and torrents anyway, how could they possibly discover people viewing downloaded files?”

The BBC generally don’t pursue pirates in that sense, they aka the government just want to make sure people buy a licence.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: VAn hoax

“How would anybody detect if you were fibbing about your tvs attributes?”

Technically, you totally can determine this from a distance. The only black and white TVs that exist (to the best of my knowledge) are analog ones. Analog TVs emit radio interference that can be detected from a surprisingly long distance, and the signal patterns emitted are distinctly different for color vs black and white televisions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: VAn hoax

IIRC, this is how the detector vans used to work. They would drive past a non-licence-paying property, pointing a receiver at the property. If they could triangulate on a signal inside the property as they drove by, they’d have evidence for a search.
Also-IIRC, the searchers were accompanied by a police officer, but the police officer would not be the one who executed the search order; it wasn’t a legally enforced warrant, and could be refused.

TV licence collection has always been theatre. I happen to value the BBC highly though I only use a fraction of its services, and am happy to pay for it. Really not sure how I feel about forcing others to pay it. I’m sure all of you “Muh Freedoms!” chaps are against it, but it’s just that good and useful and awesome…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: VAn hoax

Really not sure how I feel about forcing others to pay it. I’m sure all of you “Muh Freedoms!” chaps are against it, but it’s just that good and useful and awesome…

I think objectively, it’s wrong.

But I’m in no particular hurry to do anything about it, because it produces some of if not the best TV and related services in the world fairly economically and without adverts.

Better yet, their charter concentrates on the good of the people, rather than the good of the shareholders or the few at the top – and it shows.

It’s a fine example of a system that is objectively wrong doing a better job than the alternatives we have so far discovered.

Those who need a simple worldview will be up in arms about it, but the rest of us sometimes just have to shrug and accept that the world is complicated. We’ve got what we’ve got, and there’s no point trying to tear down something grand just because the idealogy is at odds with us.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: VAn hoax

And since most of the interesting BBC stuff winds up on usenet and torrents anyway, how could they possibly discover people viewing downloaded files?

They don’t need to. Non-live viewing doesn’t require a license. (Starting in September, on-demand viewing via iPlayer will. But on-demand viewing via other services won’t, and torrents aren’t iPlayer.)

wereisjessicahyde (profile) says:

They don't exist

I’ve lived in the UK for 43 years. I’ve never seen one, nobody I know has ever seen one.

Oh and for the record the BBC itself has said that the Telegraphs claims are bullshit. (it’s worth noting the Tory supporting Telegraph hate the BBC and would like nothing better than to see it privatised) Anyway..

The BBC issued a statement following the claims.

“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.”

El Reg has a decent piece on how it is and I quote “As our analysis suggested, the Telegraph’s article about the BBC sniffing Wi-Fi is complete bollocks”

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/08/06/bbc_detector_van_wi_fi_iplayer/

Anonymous UK Resident #5424743871 says:

Re: They don't exist

I saw one, once, in the 1980s. Relatively recent photos and videos exist of Volkswagen Transporter and Ford Transit vans bearing “TV Licensing” decals.

So they exist, but in all likelihood are just ordinary vans, decal’d up for show. It’s a bit like the ‘headlights’ on a Nascar.

streetlight (profile) says:

Detect the RF from TV sets

I always thought the BBC could detect the RF emissions from TV sets. Perhaps this is more likely from CRT based sets. Do flat panel displays not having a TV receiver output detectable RF at TV frequencies? If that’s the case, the BBC will be knocking on a lot of doors because of all the computer monitors in private homes and millions and millions in businesses.

wereisjessicahyde (profile) says:

Re: Detect the RF from TV sets

Technically they can detect RF signals but they never did, they never needed to. Capita Business Services (the private company in charge of enforcement) have a list of every household without a licence. Much cheaper to just knock on the door, and if they hear a TV blasting in the backgroung then busted.

It’s also worth noting that by the governments own figures less than 2% of households don’t have licence. It’s hard worth the cost of enforcing.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Detect the RF from TV sets

“Do flat panel displays not having a TV receiver output detectable RF at TV frequencies?”

Flat panel display emit RF interference as well, but it’s in an entirely different frequency range from analog displays. Aside from doing Van Eck phreaking* to look at the image being displayed, there would be no way to detect if the display is connected to a TV tuner or not.

*Van Eck phreaking is a way of reconstructing an image from the RF emissions of of a display device. It’s easy with analog displays, but can be done with LCDs as well: https://www.newscientist.com/blog/technology/2007/04/seeing-through-walls.html

DogBreath says:

A much more likely scenario...

is in which the way the book people were detected in Fahrenheit 451, it was due to a lack of an antenna on their roof.

These “WiFi Detector Vans” will look for WiFi, but having WiFi with no discernible BBC iPlayer data going through it, or even the simple lack of a WiFi signal coming from your property will be all the “proof” they need to suspect that you are a just another “dirty” ethernet cable user.

Be careful world, the firemen are coming.

PT (profile) says:

"given legal dispensation"

Whether the vans work or not, the troubling part is the authority they’ve been given. It comes from the Investigatory Powers Act, or as informed people call it the “snooper’s charter”, an allegedly anti-terrorist law. Proof, if any were needed, that when a government says “terrorists” it really means citizens who may deprive it of a nickel’s tax.

Anonymous Howard II says:

Re: "given legal dispensation"

Don’t forget Walter Wolfgang, who was detained under the terrorism act for shouting “rubbish!” during a speech by then home secretary Jack Straw.

This, along with shakedowns as you said, is why “laws, because terrorism” must be treated with the utmost suspicion and cynicism.

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