Britain's ad-free BBC, renowned for the quality of its news and television broadcasting, is funded by an annual fee on television use. But it's also famous for its sinister TV Detector Vans, which legend has it can tell if unlicensed televisions are in operation behind closed doors.
The beeb's secret sauce will remain secret, however, as Britain's Information Commissioner has swatted down a Freedom of Information request for information on the size of the BBC's van fleet and the technology used.
The grounds given for the refusal, however, are telling enough: "if [the BBC] did so it would damage the public's perception of the effectiveness of TV detector vans," the report says. "... It relies on the public perception that the vans could be used at any time to catch evaders."
Revealing technical information would result in the loss of the "deterrent effect," and, hence, "a significant number of people would decide not to pay their licence fee."
Brits will be hard-pressed to suppress a guffaw at the nature of the disclosure and its rather obvious implications.
The request posed several questions, asking for confirmation of hand-held TV-detecting gadgets, how operators are trained to use them, how often they are deployed, technical specifications, and whether there really exists a "fleet" of detection vans at all.
In response, the BBC refused to disclose the extent of its operation, how often TV detector technology is used, and the details of how the technology works. Here's an excerpt from the ruling:
The BBC explained that the number of detector vans in operation, the location of their deployment and the frequency is not common knowledge. It relies on the public perception that the vans could be used at any time to catch evaders. This perception has built up since the first van was launched in 1952 and has been a key cost effective method in deterring people from evading their licence fee. The BBC state that to release information which relates to the number of detection devices and how often they are used will change the public’s perception of their effectiveness. If the deterrent effect is lost, the BBC believes that a significant number of people would decide not to pay their licence fee, knowing how the deployment and effectiveness of vans and other equipment will affect their chances of success in avoiding detection.
While it's technologically possible to detect emissions from television sets, some believe that the switch to LCD-based hardware, and the omnipresence of non-televisual computer monitors, has now made effective detection logistically unlikely–if there was ever a serious detection program in the first place.
The report even states that the BBC provided details of the technology to it, but reported that its disclosure would "open the possibility of people analysing them to find weaknesses to evade detection equipment."