Is the BBC really going to listen in on your home Wi-Fi network?
The BBC announced that, as of 1 September, all iPlayer users must be in possession of a valid TV licence. To ensure that’s the case, the British broadcaster plans to use snooper vans to listen in on home Wi-Fi signals and detect illicit viewing of iPlayer content.
According to The Telegraph, this is all perfectly legal as the corporation has been given the power to use the same technology that crime-fighting agencies have access to. The BBC insists that its inspectors can’t spy on your other internet browsing habits, but regardless of that, it’s clear that this will be a point of contention for many.
Interestingly, the BBC and the National Audit Office report on the matter doesn’t disclose how the Wi-Fi snooping technology works. It seems that the most likely method the BBC could use is “packet sniffing”, a method that can detect the size of encrypted traffic going across a network without even needing to hack into it. The BBC’s snoopers could send specific data packets through iPlayer and see if it matched up with the user’s Wi-Fi data stream.
Many privacy experts and campaigners have voiced their concerns over the matter. One spokesperson for Privacy International, a human-rights watchdog, saying to The Telegraph that it was “startlingly invasive” that the BBC would resort to developing technology to monitor home Wi-Fi networks.
However, this may not even be the case. First the BBC issued a statement decrying the initial news report.
Second, as The Register points out, the initial report comes from a NAO report back in March, publishing in mid-July, which makes no mention of Wi-Fi snooping for catch-up TV services. Even the technology described is hazy at best. While it is feasible to track packets being sent over a network, if a user is watching a show on demand, as opposed to live TV via iPlayer, the BBC’s snooper vans would have no idea what was being sent back and forth – and thus wouldn’t be able to match packet size with their own data to confirm iPlayer use. This new measure would also require every user to be watching via Wi-Fi and not making use of iPlayer’s download feature to watch offline.
The BBC’s approach to TV licensing has always had a rather negative response from the public, with many accusing the BBC of scaremongering to ensure people cough up for a licence. If the BBC plans to put new Wi-Fi snooping vans out on the road, it’ll be a continuation of its plan to goad users into paying the fee. In reality, it seems unlikely we’ll see BBC surveillance vans parked on the streets of Britain any time soon.