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BBC's TV detector vans to remain a state secret

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The Information Commissioner has ruled against a request to force the BBC to reveal the inner workings of its TV detector vans.

Although most detection is done by database the Beeb still claims to maintain a fleet of vans which can tell if a particular address contains a TV. If you buy or rent a TV or buy a PC tuner card in the UK your address is passed onto TV Licensing. The BBC maintains a database of 29 million residential and business addresses which it can check for up-to-date licences. If there is no response to letters an "enquiry officer" is sent to the address. If householders refuse them access - which is quite legal - then a detector van will be sent.

The BBC, which runs TV Licensing, received a Freedom of Information request for information on the number of vans it runs and what technical equipment they contain. It was also asked if it uses handheld devices to detect TVs.

After answering part of the request the broadcaster refused to give further details because if it did so it would damage the public's perception of the effectiveness of TV detector vans. The ICO agreed that if the deterrent was lost some people would not pay their licence fee. The ICO ruled that not releasing technical information would serve the public interest of legitimate licence fee payers so no further action is required by the BBC.

The BBC supported its claim with evidence that a growing number of people are dissatisfied with paying the licence fee - it got 126 complaints in 2006-2007 compared to 60 in 2005-2006. It also pointed to "a number of blogs and forums dedicated to people who are dissatisfied with having to pay the licence fee. These sites are used by members to share information on the TV licensing system and how to evade payment."

The BBC's use of detection devices is regulated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the related RIPA (British Broadcasting Corporation) Order. It is overseen by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners. The Beeb spends 4.1 per cent of license fee revenue on collection.

Although it is technically quite easy to detect a working TV, many people believe the vans only exist as an imaginary deterrent.

The full decision notice is available as a pdf here. ®

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