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BBC detector vans are back to spy on your home Wi-Fi – if you can believe it

Auntie denies it 'sniffs packets' for licence-fee dodging

By Chris Williams, 6 Aug 2016

Updated The BBC's creepy detector vans will be dragged into the 21st century to sniff Brits' home Wi-Fi networks, claims the UK Daily Telegraph's Saturday splash.

From September 1, you'll need a telly licence if you stream catch-up or on-demand TV from the BBC's iPlayer service, regardless if you've got a television set or not – phone, computer, potato, whatever, you'll have to cough up.

In preparation for this, allegedly, the Beeb's heavies are going to drive vans around Blighty's streets with gear that will spy on people's wireless networks to make sure they're not streaming iPlayer without a licence. Assuming this is true, and another sign that Britain is nothing more than a parody dystopian state, how exactly is this going to work?

Well, there are a number of options. One of the more sane, and we use that term loosely, is: the BBC TV licensing enforcers – aka Capita Business Services – will park outside homes that aren't paying a telly tax and record packets transmitted on Wi-Fi frequencies. If these packets, even if they are encrypted as they should be with WPA2 or whatever, match the size and pattern of iPlayer video packets, then presumably you'll start getting angry letters demanding £145.50, doorsteppings and potentially prosecution and fines.

It turns out the Tele's article today was based on a National Audit Office report from March that was published in mid-July. Written by Auditor General Sir Amyas Morse, it doesn't reveal exactly how the iPlayer viewing detection will work. In fact, it doesn't reveal anything at all on the subject.

Let's break down the newspaper's article paragraph by paragraph:

The BBC is to spy on internet users in their homes by deploying a new generation of Wi-Fi detection vans to identify those illicitly watching its programmes online.

Strong start. Sounds like we're onto a winner, here.

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.

Ah, those good old sinister detector vans – you know, the ones that claimed to be able to reliably sense through brick walls potentially ten or more yards away if you were watching your telly or not, when a knock at the door or a peek through the letterbox would work just as well.

More importantly, it's made clear we're talking about "capturing information" from people's wireless networks.

The corporation has been given legal dispensation to use the new technology, which is typically only available to crime-fighting agencies.

This is a very cute way of saying the broadcaster has been allowed to use the UK's scattergun antiterror laws to snoop on you.

The BBC insists that its inspectors will not be able to spy on other internet browsing habits of viewers.

If this is true, then we're probably not talking about Capita's goons cracking your encrypted private Wi-Fi and reading the contents of your packets.

It's possible, of course, that their equipment attempts to decrypt the packets, if necessary, and studies their contents for evidence of iPlayer traffic and reports simply a yes or a no. Technically, the inspectors will not pry into people's personal lives, but the capability and potential for abuse is there, if so. That would be ridiculous, though, and highly unlikely.

The existence of the new strategy emerged in a report carried out by the National Audit Office (NAO). It shows that TV Licensing, the corporation’s licence-fee collection arm, has developed techniques to track those watching television on laptops, tablets, and mobile phones.

No, we'll tell you what the Sir Amyas's report [PDF] actually says. It says this:

"Where the BBC 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. 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."

Two important things to note. First, the Telegraph omitted the first sentence of that crucial passage from its front-page article. The emphasis in the government report is on making people pay up for watching live TV, but the Telegraph bangs on about something completely different: on-demand iPlayer and Wi-Fi surveillance.

We can't stress this enough: whatever was shown to Sir Amyas by the Beeb's geeks involved live telly, yet the Telegraph's article concentrates on catch-up viewing and specifically the capturing of people's private wireless packets.

The technology to snare on-demand viewers of iPlayer via Wi-Fi snooping may well not exist. There is no evidence in the cited audit report backing the newspaper's claims of wireless network detector vans.

Second, the government report – a crucial component to the Telegraph's page-one article – is more vague than a teenager mumbling about their Friday night to a parent.

How exactly does identifying a TV set receiving a signal work "in the same way" as identifying iPlayer real-time video wrapped in potentially encrypted IEEE 802.11 frames? Unless, of course, you're massively oversimplifying the technology, like saying a jet engine works "in the same way" as a ten quid hairdryer. Moving air, heat, there's a spinning thing, you know, something like that.

So no, the report doesn't show that TV Licensing has developed techniques to track iPlayer streamers. It doesn't show anything. We just have to take the Telegraph's word that Capita is monitoring people's wireless packets.

The disclosure of the controversial new snooping technique will lay to rest the persistent claims that detector vans are no more than an urban myth designed to intimidate the public into paying the licence fee.

Oh my God.

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the corporation is entitled to carry out surveillance of suspected licence-fee dodgers. The BBC confirmed that its newly developed detection techniques had been authorised under the legislation.

Told you so. RIPA, an antiterror law. RIPA should just drop the terror bit and be called the anti law. If you're anti-something, you're probably breaking RIPA.

While the corporation would not disclose how the new technology works...

Convenient.

...the report states that the BBC has ruled out combing its own records of computers that have logged into the iPlayer website to hunt down non-paying viewers. Sir Amyas writes in the document: "The BBC rightly acknowledges that this would be an inappropriate invasion of privacy."

Right, so inspecting web server logs: no good; capturing people's Wi-Fi packets in their own homes: fair play, we're told.

Fine, let's be fair, let's turn down the snark here a little. The BBC can't really take a list of all the unique IP addresses accessing iPlayer and ask all the ISPs for all the corresponding home addresses of their subscribers so the Beeb can check to see if they've all paid their TV licences.

It's not practical. Invasion of privacy doesn't even come into it – it's easier to crack down on telly fee dodgers the other way around: look at who hasn't paid up and send them scary letters, and then send round the scary vans with the scary powers that no one can explain, and tell them to cough up. It works surprisingly well.

Also, if the BBC is wringing its hands so tightly about invasions of privacy, presumably that rules out the detector vans decrypting people's private Wi-Fi networks, or peering into public ones. In which case, how else is this detection going to work?

Dr Miguel Rio, a computer network expert ... said that licence-fee inspectors could sit outside a property and view encrypted “packets” of data – such as their size and the frequency with which they are emitted over the network – travelling over a home Wi-Fi network.

Finally, here's the crunch. They could be scrutinizing the size and transmission rate of data to look for patterns of iPlayer use. In 17 broadsheet paragraphs, we've downgraded from "deploying a new generation of Wi-Fi detection vans" to an academic's best guess.

If it is true that TV Licensing is going to study people's IP packets, we hope the enforcers – and their lawyers – realize so many other types of traffic could look like iPlayer streams: a video from another website like itv.com, perhaps.

To be most effective with this technique, you'd have to monitor the data flowing into someone's house at the ISP level and then see if it corresponds to what goes out over the air from the wireless router, and at that point – why bother looking at the Wi-Fi? Look down at your hands. You've just tapped their broadband. You've got everything you need at that point. Or is that a step too far? Is that the line crossed for invasion of privacy? Can't tap someone's DSL but you can point an antenna at their living room window?

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.

Wrapping up

Also, what happens when you change the MTU on your network? Riddle me that, Sir Amyas.

We've got two more words for you: Ethernet. Cables. What are you going to do about TVs physically wired into their routers?

Privacy campaigners described the developments as “creepy and worrying”

Oh, don't worry about it. It's another round of mysterious inexplicable technology to terrify you into paying. Which you should, by the way – it costs money, lots of money, to pay actors, writers, producers, directors, crews, lawyers and executives to make things that people enjoy.

Just spare us the scare tactics and the hocus pocus. ®

Updated to add

As our analysis suggested, the Telegraph's article about the BBC sniffing Wi-Fi is complete bollocks:

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