he 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.
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.
The corporation has been given legal dispensation to use the new technology, which is typically only available to crime-fighting agencies, to enforce the new requirement that people watching BBC programmes via the iPlayer must have a TV licence.
The disclosure will lead to fears about invasion of privacy and follows years of concern over the heavy-handed approach of the BBC towards those suspected of not paying the licence fee. However, the BBC insists that its inspectors will not be able to spy on other internet browsing habits of viewers.
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.
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.
“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.”
Currently, anyone who watches or records live programming – online or on television – needs to buy a £145.50 licence. But from September 1, those who use the iPlayer only for catch-up viewing will also need to pay the fee, after the BBC successfully lobbied the Government to change the law.
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.
Sir Amyas writes in the document: “The BBC rightly acknowledges that this would be an inappropriate invasion of privacy.”
Instead, electrical engineering experts said that the most likely explanation for how the BBC would carry out its surveillance was a technique known as “packet sniffing”, which involves watching traffic passing over a wireless internet network without hacking into the connection or breaking its encryption.
Researchers at University College London disclosed that they had used a laptop running freely available software to identify Skype internet phone calls passing over encrypted Wi-Fi, without needing to crack the network password.
This would allow them to establish if devices at homes without television licences were indeed accessing BBC programmes online.
Dr Rio said: “They actually don’t need to decrypt traffic, because they can already see the packets. They have control over the iPlayer, so they could ensure that it sends packets at a specific size, and match them up. They could also use directional antennae to ensure they are viewing the Wi-Fi operating within your property.”
Privacy campaigners described the developments as “creepy and worrying”.
A spokesman for Privacy International, the human rights watchdog, said: “While TV Licensing have long been able to examine the electromagnetic spectrum to watch for and investigate incorrect usage of their services, the revelation that they are potentially developing technology to monitor home Wi-Fi networks is startlingly invasive.”
A spokesman for TV Licensing said: “We’ve caught people watching on a range of devices, but don’t give details of detection as we would not want to reveal information helpful to evaders.
“Our use of detection is regularly inspected by independent regulators.”
The broadcaster included the NAO report in a list of documents that it claimed to have published alongside its annual report last month, but never distributed the review or uploaded it to its website. It has now been placed online by the public spending watchdog.