BBC To Snoop On Your Wi-Fi – And It’s Legal

MPs Vote To Decriminalise Non-Payments Of TV License
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The BBC will be deploying a new technology to spy on your Wi-Fi in your own home to see if you are watching their programmes ‘illicitly’. And they’ve been given the legal dispensation to do so.

From next month, BBC vans will be travelling up and down residential streets across the country to capture information from private Wi-Fi networks in homes to “sniff out” those who have not paid the licence fee, The Telegraph reports. Privacy campaigners call it “creepy and worrying”.

Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the BBC is entitled to carry out surveillance of suspected licence-fee evaders. The corporation has been given legal dispensation to use a new technology, which is only available to crime-fighting agencies, to enforce the new requirement that people watching BBC programmes via iPlayer must have a TV licence.

At present the annual £145.50 licence fee is required by law for anyone who watches or records live programming (on television or online). But from the 1st of September those who use iPlayer only for non-live catch-up viewing will also need to pay the fee, this change occurring after the BBC successfully lobbied the government to change the law.

The BBC has already been investigated for its use of draconian surveillance laws to pursue non-payers of the licence fee, and has been criticised for wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds in failed prosecutions for non-fee payers.

Electrical engineering experts speculate that the BBC would carry out its surveillance using a technique known as “packet sniffing”. This involves watching traffic pass over a wireless internet network – Wi-Fi being used in practically every home with internet in the country – without breaking its encryption or hacking into the connection.

Packet sniffing is illegal, but the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act gives certain bodies permission to monitor internet communications; the BBC has been given authority under the Act to watch home Wi-Fi connections.

Dr. Miguel Rio, a computer network expert, said that licence-fee inspectors could sit outside a property and view encrypted “packets” of data travelling over a home Wi-Fi network. This would allow the licence enforcement agents to establish if devices at homes without television licences were 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.”

A spokesman for Privacy International 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.”

Follow Victoria Friedman on Twitter  or e-mail:


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.