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NO, the BBC Probably Can NOT Snoop Your WiFi via UK TV Detector Vans

Monday, Aug 8th, 2016 (11:57 am) - Score 13,682

Over the weekend it was reported that the BBC were about to deploy new technology that could capture information from your broadband based home WiFi network and “sniff out” any TV Licence fee dodgers watching iPlayer content online. You probably shouldn’t be worried.

Hopefully by now most people will be aware that a recent change in the law means that, as of 1st September 2016, a TV Licence will also be needed to download or watch BBC programmes on demand, including catch up TV, on BBC iPlayer.

Naturally licence fee dodgers will have been alarmed to read the Telegraph’s piece on Saturday, which warned that the TV Licensing Authority was about to launch a fleet of WiFi sniffing vans to help track them down.

The evidence for this was apparently a vague piece of text in a related report from the National Audit Office (NAO) and the mass media duly regurgitated it, even though the full paragraph is not quite as clear cut as originally claimed and does not mention WiFi.

Sir Amyas Morse’s report said:

“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.”

The very same report, on point 1.31 (page 40), clarifies that the BBC’s approach also would have to be rather limited because anything that could snoop on your WiFi, such as in the way suggested by the Telegraph, might also have access to traffic going to non-TV devices. “The BBC rightly acknowledges that this would be an inappropriate invasion of privacy,” said the report.

Now we don’t doubt that such vans do exist, but so far as we are aware nobody has ever been prospected via detection evidence in court and most such vans are merely used by enquiry officers when making house visits to those without a licence fee. Officers catch an average of almost 900 evaders every day, mostly through ordinary means (e.g. face-to-face chats).

The next challenge is one of technology and law. Admittedly anybody running an open WiFi network might be vulnerable to such snooping, although it would depend upon the amount of access allowed by the owner’s router and even then you might need to commit an act of hacking to gather that specific data from deeper within the customer’s home LAN.

However today most routers are secured and encrypted using WPA/WPA2 by default and, short of exploiting a vulnerability in the device to get around this (i.e. hacking, which the authority will NOT do), there’s virtually nothing that the BBC could do to sniff out your iPlayer usage.

Heck it would be easier for the TV Licensing authority to simply abuse measures in the forthcoming Investigatory Powers Bill (IPBill) and have ISPs keep a look out for iPlayer access, although this would still be technically very difficult to achieve with any accuracy (Deep Packet Inspection of traffic perhaps?).

The bill itself is also supposed to be aimed at serious cyber-crime (we’ll see how long that lasts), not TV Licence fee dodgers and lest we not forget the “inappropriate invasion of privacy” comment above. So far the IPBill does not appear to include a provision that precisely matches the TV Licence authority’s rather unique requirements and current laws would demand a warrant.

Alternatively they could perhaps track IP addresses via iPlayer and link that back to an ISP, which would then allow them to request details of the related customer(s) from a broadband provider via the courts. However accessing a particular iPlayer page doesn’t mean to say the content itself was watched and this kind of evidence is notoriously flaky, as well as being easily defeated by a VPN. Once again, WiFi has nothing to do with it.

In other words, short of looking through a window to see what’s on your screen, which is something that the enforcement officers may well attempt, there’s actually no real evidence to support the original claim of WiFi sniffing. Clearly the fear of such a van is far more effective than the van itself, which probably doesn’t even exist or at least not to any huge scale.

However, in playing devil’s advocate, we should say that nobody except the BBC and TV Licensing authority can say 100% for sure that they aren’t rolling around in vans, breaking into your WiFi network and snooping your Internets.

No doubt they’d end up sitting there for hours, observing your sessions of porn, cat pictures and inane Facebook postings, in the hope of catching that one time where you did something useful (to them) and viewed an old episode of Dr Who via iPlayer. So we can’t say for sure and there are ways to theoretically do it, but they’re probably using a much simpler approach that has zero to do with hacking into your WiFi network. Also..

By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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