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.

Is the BBC really going to listen in on your home Wi-Fi network?

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.

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