TV Licensing Authority to deploy Wi-Fi sniffing vans

August 8, 2016 // 12 p.m.

Tags: #bbc #iplayer #privacy #tv-detection-van #tvla #tv-licence #tv-licensing #wi-fi-sniffing

The TV Licensing Authority is to reportedly deploy updated 'TV Licensing detection vans' with Wi-Fi sniffing capabilities, following a change in its remit which requires a licence for use of the iPlayer on-demand and catch-up streaming video service.

The UK is near-unique in having a mandatory 'tax' on TV viewing, the TV Licence, which is used in the main to fund the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). With commercial channels being broadcast free-to-air, there have long been those attempting to dodge paying this fee. To catch these miscreants, the TV Licensing Authority has long used secretive 'detector vans' which are claimed to be able to see if a TV is receiving a broadcast signal without entering a property.

Explanations of just how these vans work range from them being empty shells with the real 'detection' being a simple database of people who haven't yet paid for a TV licence to detecting a feedback signal from the flyback transformer or local oscillator inside a TV set. Now, though, it appears they are getting new functionality: the ability to sniff on your Wi-Fi connection.

According to a report in the Telegraph, the TV Licensing Authority is to upgrade its detection equipment to include the ability to find unlicensed households using the iPlayer service, even on laptops or smartphones not connected to traditional display devices. As with the earlier detection technologies, though, details of precisely how the system would work are not being released; guesses range from it being yet another confidence trick designed to scare unlicensed households into reforming to the use of recently-discovered techniques for classifying Wi-Fi traffic without the need to break the encryption system protecting the data within.

'We've caught people watching on a range of devices, but don’t give details of detection as we would not want to reveal information helpful to evaders,' a spokesperson for the TVLA told the paper.

UPDATE:
The BBC has categorically denied that it plans to capture data from Wi-Fi networks, describing the Telegraph's claims to the contrary as 'inaccurate reporting.' A statement issued by a spokesperson for the broadcaster explained that '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,' but nevertheless suggested that the TV Licensing Authority will be able to 'detect people breaking the law by watching BBC iPlayer without a licence.' No details on how such detection could take place without capturing network traffic has been provided.
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