Can UK TV Licensing authorities actually tell if you're watching TV or not?
October 11, 2007 3:05 AM   Subscribe

Can UK TV Licensing authorities actually tell via some special ray gun if you're watching TV or not?

Because I suspect they can't. If they're slapping a fine on you, presumably they have to be able to prove it?
posted by 6am to Law & Government (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
As a practical matter, even if they have these detector vans, that's not what Capita does for enforcement these days. If they think you are breaking the law they will send someone around to try to get enough evidence for a search warrant (by looking through windows, getting you to let them in, or admitting tit).
posted by grouse at 3:11 AM on October 11, 2007


I found this. But its sorely lacking in actual facts. They just say "We've got em! Oh yes! They're top secret.".
posted by 6am at 3:12 AM on October 11, 2007


Yes. It's a form of Van Eck phreaking. I don't know how well it picks up on modern flat panel displays, but an old-style CRT is happily leaking medium wave signals. A directional antenna will tell you where the TV is, and a bit more hardware will tell you what it's watching. Check this out, which allows you to modulate the signal your monitor transmits to produce music.

I know there's a reasonably detailed description of the process in the later, Steve Gold-edited versions of The Hacker's Handbook (ISTR he talks about combining two signals, one carrying the data and the other a sync pulse that tells you when to sweep back to the top left), but as far as I can see only the first edition is available online.
posted by Leon at 3:42 AM on October 11, 2007 [1 favorite]


Supposedly, they use a local oscillator to detect the signal created when your TV tuner tunes in to a station. As grouse says, they tend to use lower tech methods now. Here's a Guardian notes and queries on the same. Oh, and here's a short "educational" film.
posted by seanyboy at 3:45 AM on October 11, 2007


FWIW, you don't have to be watching TV. You need a TV license to own a device capable of recieving broadcast transmissions (including, tvs, computurs, set-top boxes and mobile phones)
Yes they have detector vans that can tell if you're watching but they really don't bother, they just look up in their database who doesn't have a license and send them endless threatening letters (this can go on for years)

They need the detector vans to get proof to get a search warrant - they cannot enter your home without one (they will probably try though) If the TVL come to your house without a police escort and a search warrant, you can just say no.
posted by missmagenta at 3:45 AM on October 11, 2007


Sorry - That should be that they "detect" the local oscillator. My bad.
posted by seanyboy at 3:48 AM on October 11, 2007


You need a TV license to own a device capable of recieving broadcast transmissions (including, tvs, computurs, set-top boxes and mobile phones)

I don't think thats correct. This is from TV Licensings site:

"You need a TV Licence to use any television receiving equipment such as a TV set, set-top boxes, video or DVD recorders, computers or mobile phones to watch or record TV programmes as they are being shown on TV."

When I was at Uni, I had a TV just for playing GameCube. I asked them about this, and they asked me to write to them to confirm that I was not using it to watch TV, just play games. I did, and I wasn't fined or even contacted again.

I should point out we actually do have a TV License, even though I personally barely watch it. TV is mostly shit, but Discovery Channel is always great.
posted by 6am at 4:19 AM on October 11, 2007


Presumably if you were just using it for games, it was not attached to an aerial - that's fine.
If an inspector had come to visit, turned on the set and got TV channels you could have been fined - you would have no proof, other than your word that you weren't at any point over the course of the unlicensed period, watching TV. If you're not watching TV then you don't need an aerial plugged in to your set.
posted by missmagenta at 4:42 AM on October 11, 2007


I have had almost the reverse experience of 6am. I've had a TV license and a TV that could only play videos, and on enquiring about whether I could sell it to someone else without them needing a license, I've had them rather aggressively tell me to get a license. Even though I had a license.

More directly related to the questioner, if you buy a TV from a retailer (or anything else that picks up signals, a set top box is reason enough) you'll be asked for a house number and postcode quite often. I don't know if you can refuse to give that information and still be allowed to buy the item, but I've given addresses that weren't my residence before, and again had a letter sent in the post demanding that I get a TV license. Even though I had a license.

Generally speaking, I think that if you have any contact with the TVLA in a way that doesn't let them instantly link you to a known license-holding address, you're going to get sent a letter.
posted by edd at 4:54 AM on October 11, 2007


Retailers will ask your address because they're required to notify the TVLA about the sale. I don't know if they can refuse to sell you the set if you refuse to give them your address.

http://www.tvlicensing.co.uk/information/tvdealers.jsp
posted by missmagenta at 5:05 AM on October 11, 2007


If an inspector had come to visit, turned on the set and got TV channels you could have been fined - you would have no proof, other than your word that you weren't at any point over the course of the unlicensed period, watching TV.

Although this kind of assumed-guilty bullying would be quite unsurprising from TV Licensing, a fine like that would be very challengeable in court. You must pay a TV license if you watch or record broadcast TV, and not in other circumstances. That's all there is to it, though it took me about 12 letters back and forth with TVL to establish it.

Also, you have no legal obligation to admit an inspector to your home in the first place. I only watch rented DVDs, so don't have a TV license; I don't let the inspectors in as a matter of principle, in protest at TVL's policy of assuming that non-license-payers are probably criminals. I'll play nice when they start doing!
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:14 AM on October 11, 2007


Indeed, you can own a TV and not buy a license (legally that is), though my friend who has done so, seems to have had to connect something to, or adapt his TV so it can't pick up TV. I don't know whether this is just to keep the licensing folk happy, and keep them off his back, or whether it is something they insist on.
posted by opsin at 6:19 AM on October 11, 2007


You know when you go to a store and buy a TV or VCR and they ask you for your postcode at the counter?

That gets sent to TVL.
posted by genghis at 6:48 AM on October 11, 2007


To get the inspectors off your back you could opt for a Black and White license - saving £90. From the description of the way the detectors work I think it is probably unlikely they would be able to detect the difference. If anybody knocks on the door the trick would be to appear to be the sort of person who still watches TV in B&W - I think some old style NHS glasses would probably help.
posted by rongorongo at 6:57 AM on October 11, 2007


Funnily enough, we got our first semi-threatening letter from TV Licensing today, in a house we just moved in to. The wording on their new letters is very misleading, saying if you own a computer, mobile phone or tv, you need a license. I called them up and said, very clearly, we have no devices in the house currently capable of recieving a tv signal, and no plans to get one, and they took us off their harassment list, or whatever they call it. My American wife is still getting over the idea of needing a license for a TV.

Funny story on the B&W license - my mother has an ancient 60's vintage black and white TV (it's made of Bakelite, and you actually turn a knob to tune it in). The TV inspectors refused to believe she didn't have colour tv until they came round and saw it for themselves.

But yes, I would refuse inspectors entry on principle unless they have a search warrant.
posted by Happy Dave at 7:03 AM on October 11, 2007


[I'm only banging on about this because I object so strongly to TVL's methods, not to pick an argument — and I know it wasn't the original question — but 6am's quote above, from the TVL website, is the truth: you need a license if you use a TV to watch or record broadcast television. It doesn't matter what your TV is capable of doing. All these other things — disabling your TV, etc — just show that TVL's bullying works!]
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:30 AM on October 11, 2007


Funnily enough, we got our first semi-threatening letter from TV Licensing today, in a house we just moved in to. The wording on their new letters is very misleading, saying if you own a computer, mobile phone or tv, you need a license. I called them up and said, very clearly, we have no devices in the house currently capable of recieving a tv signal, and no plans to get one, and they took us off their harassment list, or whatever they call it.

Don't be so sure. We got threatening letters for about nine months until the inspector came around. I gladly let him in as I was sick of getting the letters, and the letters kept coming even though we phoned every single time we received one. The inspector took a quick look around, tried to trick me into saying we had a TV tuner for the computer and then left - didn't ask me to open the cupboards or anything. We haven't heard a peep since (more than 2 years) and have moved in that time.
posted by goo at 10:43 AM on October 11, 2007


I've always thought someone should invent an audio device that you can listen to the TV on but not watch it. Bound to be a hit with the blind who still need a license even thought they're not getting the full benefit. There's quite a few TV shows I'd consider listening to but not watching.
posted by browolf at 1:06 PM on October 21, 2007


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