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Saturday 21 February 2015

TV Licensing on BBC Tees: The Truth About Detection

BBC Tees

PR flunky Matt Thompson was entertaining the radio listeners of Teesside yesterday when BBC Tees granted him a whole hour of air time to promote the BBC TV licence.

Radio host Mike Parr, who had clearly planned yesterday's show on the back of a fag packet, listened intently as the gappy-toothed PR man spun a single message - whatever you're watching, however you're watching it, you need a TV licence - into as many permutations as possible.

Indeed Thompson's message was so repetitive that listeners can't be sure that Parr wasn't simply pushing a button to play preselected TV Licensing soundbites.

To give Thompson some credit his words were generally accurate up until the point that caller Darren arrived on the scene. Having listened to many TV Licensing PR harlots over the years, it is fair to say that Thompson is a skilled orator. Well rehearsed in TV Licensing's mantra, he is seemingly able to twist most stories in their favour. He does that without the merest wobble in tone or flicker of conscience.

Darren, who had some comments about TV Licensing's enforcement activities, clearly threw a spanner in the works. Thompson's frustration was audible as Darren, who claimed to work in the telecommunications industry, rejected outright the concept of TV detection. He also said that far from being the magical detectors TV Licensing want people to believe, goon handheld devices are actually for accessing the LASSy database.

Darren astutely continued: "The only way that you can catch someone is if they admit on the doorstep that they watch or record live TV, or invite you into their house. And without that knowledge from the person you can't detect anything."

Giving the audible gasps and sighs in the background, Thompson was clearly rattled by the message Darren was sharing with his fellow BBC Tees listeners. Excuses were made and Darren was quickly bundled off the air, but the damage was already done.

In the remainder of this post we shall consider some of the issues raised on the programme in more detail.

Unlike some of our fellow commentators, the TV Licensing Blog believes that television detection is a reality. TV Licensing works hard to maintain the facade that detector vans are busily rumbling up and down streets in every town, every day.

The reality is very different to that, with detector vans few and far between. The use of detection is strictly controlled by legislation and, due to the various legal hoops that need to be jumped through, is not nearly as widespread or effective as the BBC would like people to think.

The BBC has previously admitted that it relies on the public's perception that detection can be used to catch licence fee evaders at any time. The BBC is concerned that if the true extent of detection was made public, it would reduce the deterrence effect of detector vans and make people more likely to evade the licence fee.

The BBC has previously told us that detection evidence has never been presented during the prosecution of an alleged licence fee evader. The BBC realises that it would be suicide to present detection evidence in open court, because doing so would render that evidence open to closer public and scientific scrutiny. If presented with the opportunity, there is the real possibility that the defence would be able to pick holes in the manner in which detection evidence was obtained.

It will only take one expert witness to say "actually, this evidence is riddled with scientific errors" and the illusion of effective detection will be shattered for good. The BBC wants to avoid that at all costs, as it has spent years developing the public perception we mentioned earlier. For that reason TV Licensing collects detection evidence for the sole purpose of obtaining search warrants. The warrant application process, for obvious reasons, takes place behind closed doors, so the only people that will ever hear TV Licensing's detection evidence are the Magistrates considering the application.

Evidence uncovered during the subsequent execution of these warrants would then form the basis of any prosecution. Within the past few months the BBC has reiterated that detection evidence has never been presented in court.

Any activity that involves snooping on private individuals is strictly governed by legislation called the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. Television detection is no exception and further legislation, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (BBC) Order 2001, dictates exactly how and when that technology can be used.

Capita, the TV Licensing operations contractor, is responsible for the operation of detection equipment. The equipment itself is designed and manufactured by the BBC's in-house research and development team. Detector vans, which are currently plain white high-topped VW Transporters, are kitted out by Ely based DB Broadcast Ltd, which also performs maintenance at regular intervals. Most of the current vans, an example of which can be viewed here, were first registered in 2009-10.

The 2001 Order states that each use of detection can only be authorised by a senior manager within the BBC's TV Licensing Management Team. It goes on to identify three post holders who can act as Authorising Officer - the Head of Sales, the Head of Marketing and the Head of Revenue Management. Up until very recently the Head of Sales & Marketing was a combined job, which meant there were only two Authorising Officers able to sign off detection applications for the whole of the UK.

There are two types of detection available for use:
  • Specific detection: This is where detection equipment is aimed at a single identified property.
  • General detection: This is where detection equipment is aimed at more than one identified property that in the same vicinity to each other.
Note that detection can only be used against targeted addresses, where evasion is suspected and when normal enquiries (e.g. letters and door knockers) have drawn a blank. The legislation does not allow TV Licensing to drive along on a fishing expedition in the hope of detecting evaders at random.

If Capita wishes to use detection then it has to submit a written application to one of the BBC Authorising Officers, who are duty bound to consider it carefully. Detection should only be authorised if the circumstances fully justify it. Detection should not be authorised when there is a risk it will encroach on the privacy of a neighbouring property. A single detection authorisation lasts for a period of 8 weeks, but has to be reviewed at the half way point.  Detection may be attempted on multiple occasions during the validity period of an authorisation.

The BBC is required to maintain an accurate record of all detection authorisations. The Office of Surveillance Commissioners (OSC) - the regulator overseeing compliance with the legislation - inspects the BBC's detection systems on a three year rolling cycle. Previous inspection reports have complimented the BBC on the thoroughness and accuracy of its record keeping. Reassuringly, the OSC has also commented on evidence that the BBC rejects authorisation requests when application paperwork fails to pass muster.

In conclusion, the use of detection is not nearly as widespread as Thompson and his ilk would have people believe.

Online and mobile TV reception
On several occasions during yesterday's show, Thompson claimed that TV Licensing's technology was able to detect viewers by whatever means they were watching, be that on a normal TV set, laptop, tablet or mobile phone. For the sake of brevity, I shall refer to these as portable devices.

Whilst it may be true that TV Licensing can, on occasion, catch evaders watching on portable devices, it is not true that their technology allows them to do that.

The only way that TV Licensing can catch an evader on a portable device is if that person admits to receiving TV programmes without a licence or, in exceptionally rare circumstances, they are caught in the act of receiving TV programmes without a licence.

TV Licensing does not have a magic wand that allows it to see what people are watching online, nor does it have a magic wand that can hack into a person's mobile phone signal. Of course TV Licensing want people to believe that that technology does exist, which is why they employ people like Thompson to spread that disinformation.

As Darren correctly said: "The only way that (TV Licensing) can catch someone is if they admit on the doorstep that they watch or record live TV, or invite you into their house."

Black & white TV reception
Thompson claimed that TV Licensing's technology was such that it was able to distinguish between people receiving TV programmes on colour equipment and those receiving TV programmes on black & white equipment.

Thompson is wrong. TV Licensing does not have any technology that allows it to do that. The only way TV Licensing can verify black & white TV reception is by conducting a "monochrome challenge" visit to the property in question. TV Licensing routinely visits properties covered by a black & white licence for that very reason - they have no other way of checking.

It's time to make a collective stand against TV Licensing threats, harassment and disinformation.

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Edit (2/2/2016): The BBC has inadvertenly let slip the actual TV Licensing detection figures for 2015. As we suspected, they confirm that the use of TV detection is exceptionally rare. It is certainly not widespread or routine. You can read more here.

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Chris said...

I think that equipment to remotely identify live programmes being watched is entirely feasible.

It would consist of a small optical scope and a sensor at the ocular end. The scope would focus on an area of the property in question where light can be seen from a screen inside. For example around the edge of curtains, a ceiling through a window, or on curtains themselves.

This light would be averaged over its sensor area giving a single value for its intensity and hue at a given point in time. As the image on the screen changes, the value of the intensity and and hue would change accordingly. Over time, say 30 seconds, this will create a "fingerprint" for what was on the screen over that time. Note that it would not be possible to reconstruct the screen from this data.

Now for the detection. Capita would have a receiver assembly which receives all broadcast channels which are likely targets of license evasion, eg Sky channels, Freeview channels, etc, and feeds the streams through an algorithm which essentially applies a digital version of what's going on inside the detector unit. This would average the overall frame by frame intensity and hue and record the relative changes from one second to the next. I suspect the processing would take place inside a Capita IT Services datacenter with the receiver assembly nearby feeding the streams to it. Each channel would be stored as an ongoing fingerprint stream.

All that is now required to confirm that someone is watching live content is for the handheld detector to send its 30 second fingerprint as a block of data to the back-end server and let it match the fingerprint to a section from one of the stored streams, allowing it to check some time back too in case the programme had been paused and resumed a while later but was still technically being viewed live, in terms of the TVL definition. The match would have a confidence factor attached to it, based on various weighted metrics being processed by the matching algorithm.

This would allow Capita to know that a particular 30 second recording of intensity and hue matched to a segment of a particular programme which was on BBC1 with a 2.5 second delay, for example, and the match has a 98% confidence. This would allow them to reliably state that that programme was being viewed on a screen within the premises as it was being broadcast.

The type of screen would not matter, hence the ability to detect even small screens this way. Obviously it's gong to be easier to capture stray light from a 32" LED television than it is from an iPhone 6, but even with an iPhone, in a dark room it does a good job of lighting up the room, and a small gap in the curtains would be all that's needed for a scope to see the changing light and capture a fingerprint. Watch any house with the curtains shut at night and you can see if they're watching something (but you won't know what). Sometimes two neighbours will have the same pattern of 'flashing' going on and you know whatever it is, it's the same programme. It's essentially that process being used here where the flashing pattern for all channels is known and stored for matching live or back in time to some cut-off point.

So I do think that detectors exist but I think they are limited to acting as supporting evidence and could not be relied on as irrefutable proof. They are instead used to get a legal foot in the door and from there the good old stitch 'em up method of events is used to try and secure a conviction, as we've seen demonstrated in various video recordings of malicious warrant executions.

Admin said...

Thanks for going into so much detail there Chris.

I totally agree with you. Additional information we have, although not directly mentioned in this post, supports the idea that detection picks up the distinctive fluctuations of light produced when a TV programme displays on screen.

Capita Court Presenter Chris Christophorou mentioned that fact when he applied for a warrant in the case of Steve Heather. More here: http://tv-licensing.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/lifting-lid-on-tv-licensings-pandoras.html

Fred Bear said...

I'm very skeptical whether they can do more than detect there is a display screen in use at an address. It's clear they are using an optical spectrometer to pick up one or more of the three colours used to illuminate a display screen and the confidence factor is a measure of how much that signal is above the background light (natural and artificial).
Note that the language used is very carefully chosen to give the impression that the device only gives a positive response to broadcast TV. However, what they are claiming is a 97% probability of a POSSIBLE TV broadcast. There is no mention of distinguishing a broadcast from a DVD or computer game.

Put it this way: a starling is a small brown bird. Therefore if you see a small brown bird in a tree you can say (with a 97% probability, say) that it is a POSSIBLE starling. Of course it might be a thrush or a sparrow, but why tell the magistrate that? It would just confuse the poor JP. The 3% uncertainty takes care of the possibility that it is a funny shaped leaf.