There has been a bit of a furor of late due to a leaked report about how the BBC plan to capture those heinous people who watch iPlayer without a TV license. This has raised the question of BBC detector vans and how the BBC can catch you for watching TV without a license. Just to save time I’ll give the first word to Arstechnia and say out right that:
“The real scandal is that you still believe TV licence detector vans are real”
Once upon a time the BBC could maybe perhaps have monitored the radio signals given off by cathode ray TV’s though this is unlikely and even trickier with LED TV’s and harder still with the numerous devices we can watch “tv” on these days. Which is of course where the Telegraph article came in, with the reasonable assumption that to catch you watching iPlayer at home they’d need to snoop you WiFi/internet traffic. The BBC have said that they’ll do no such thing, so at this point lets turn things over to that bastion of tax evasion the Gruniad.
The Gruniad starts by dismissing concerns about the impact of “detector” vans on privacy as the domain of right-wing nut jobs – which given they don’t and probably have never worked isn’t totally unreasonable. We should be just laughing at them and wondering why the BBC is spending so much money on scare and bully boy tactics. However they did get a statement from the BBC which makes it clear how much nonsense the “detector” vans are and how poor the state of journalism is in some parts of the main stream media. So what have the BBC said and what does it tell us about what they might or might not be doing?
“it is wrong to suggest that our technology involves capturing data from private Wi-Fi networks.”
So if they’re not capturing data from your network then they can’t do packet inspection, traffic analysis or really anything that might be useful. But none of it matters they’re not capturing data – so they’re not getting anything locally which removes a vast chunk of possibilities we might have had to consider as to what they could be doing.
“It has ruled out combing its own records of computers that have logged in to iPlayer and matching those up to licences”
So it’s not looking at its own server logs, which is insane as quite frankly that’s the best place to get data. If you run the server you know which IP is down loading what. Of course linking that IP to an address is a vastly different problem, involving court orders and a lot of leg work to find out from each ISP what customer had a given IP address at a given point in time. As most people have dynamic addresses for their connection which can change frequently this is non-trivial unless the BBC have a deal with the main UK ISPs to get customer IP data in bulk. If they do have that then we need to have strong words with our ISPs. It also wouldn’t entirely solve the problem as many people (especially BT customers) provide open hot spots and many of us share our WI-FI details with visiting friends so even knowing which address was on a given IP, doesn’t prove who was breaking the law. As the Gruniad observes the Beeb is allowed to use anti-terror legislation to track down people who don’t pay their license fee. Not paying your license fee being right up there with setting off bombs.
Which leaves us with really only three options:
1) The Beeb is getting your ISP to spy on you – and detector vans are just theater to scare people
2) The detector vans contain a bloke with binoculars driving round trying to spot people watching things they shouldn’t be.
3) It’s all a giant bluff designed to generate regular press articles to scare people into paying up.
Now I’ve been wrong about the states snooping on us before, but quiet honestly by money is on giant bluff (or the bloke with binoculars at a push). If they’re not looking at their own logs and they’re not snooping our networks there’s not many other options.
The Gruniad does get one thing right though:
“In the long run, a more elegant solution would be to require a code linked to your TV licence to access iPlayer.”
Numerous streaming providers have solved this problem, you pay a subscription that allows you to watch/listen to stuff on X number of devices. No detector vans needed, no bullying needed, it self polices as if you share your codes then you quickly run out of allowed devices. It even allows them to collect money from abroad and do away with checking where people are connecting from. The big question really is why didn’t the Beeb do this from the out set? One can’t help but suspect that the problem is it would move them that bit closer to being a subscription service and that would make it trickier to justify the universal license fee.