Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Telescreen

It was interesting to read about a Belgian local government scheme to tax Wi-fi antennas and computer monitors at the Brussels Journal. The story seemed so outlandish as to be almost written for the Onion. Yet apparently it's true that a town wants to tax each and every network transmission antenna and that discovery branched off into an exploration of the fascinating world of TV detector vans in Britain: vans which are supposedly employed to find unlicensed television sets. But first, to the antenna tax.

Olivier Maingain, the mayor of Sint-Lambrechts-Woluwe, one of the 19 Brussels boroughs, is planning to tax all "antennas for the transmission of data". Each antenna will be taxed a staggering 4,000 euros per year. Such antennas are used for WiFi or WLAN, i.e. wireless internet or wireless networks over relatively short distances. ...  Some Brussels boroughs are already taxing companies on the number of computer screens in their offices. The government of the Brussels Region, however, considers this tax so detrimental for business investments and for the image of the region, that it offers money to boroughs that do not levy the computer screen tax.

Four thousand Euros is equivalent to about $5,350 which is probably worth more than the sum of all the computing equipment I own. Who the heck has money to pay a tax like that? But the subject of TV detector vans is historically more interesting because it conjures up scenes from World War 2 era movies where Nazi radio detection trucks prowl a darkened city in search of Resistance radio operators, busy tapping out Morse signals to London. In this case, the detector vans are operated by London. Specifically by agents of the BBC. The TV Licensing website explains that the BBC is responsible for enforcing the law against unlicensed television sets.

As a result of The Broadcast Act 1990, the BBC were made responsible for licence administration. TV Licensing is a trading name used by entities contracted by the Licensing Authority (the BBC) to administer the collection of television licence fees and enforcement of the television licensing system.

Everyone who owns a television set, set top box or a tuner card for a computer in Britain has to pay the BBC for the privilege. "A colour TV Licence costs £135.50 and a black and white licence costs £45.50." Per year. Which is good to know because I have a Pinnacle USB tuner for my laptop which I might stupidly take to Britain. I wondered whether it was subject to a fee and looked on the website to see if tourists had to pay the fee without success; nor could I find out if the device actually had to be in use to accrue liability.

However that may be it seems clear that one would get reduced fees from the BBC if you were physically incapable of viewing the TV set you owned. There is a generous discount for the blind.

If you or someone you live with is blind, you qualify to receive a 50% concession on the cost of your TV Licence. If the person who is blind isn't the current licence holder for your address, you first need to transfer the licence into their name. To do this, call us on 0870 241 6468 and we'll talk you through what you need to do.

If one were blind, however, there would be little obvious utility to watching TV at all. And I wonder how many blind people there really are in Britain sitting in front of their television sets. But if for whatever reason one were in legal violation of The Broadcast Act of 1990, then the TV detector van would be sure to get you. According to the TV Licensing website:

Our TV detector vans and enforcement officers are equipped with state-of-the-art detection equipment which can tell in as little as 20 seconds whether you are using a TV. We have a range of detection tools at our disposal in our vans. Some aspects of the equipment have been developed in such secrecy that engineers working on specific detection methods work in isolation - so not even they know how the other detection methods work. This gives us the best chance of catching licence evaders. We can use a hand-held scanning device. These measure both the direction and strength of a signal, making it easy for us to locate TVs - even in the hardest to reach places.

And woe to someone found in illegal possession of a TV set. The fine is nearly $2,000.

Using a TV or any other device to receive or record TV programmes (for example, a VCR, set-top box, DVD recorder or PC with a broadcast card) without a valid TV Licence is against the law and could lead to prosecution and a fine of up to £1,000, not to mention the embarrassment and hassle of a court appearance.

There is some dispute over whether TV detector vans actually exist. A forum at the Guardian, for example, contains numerous entries from readers who claim the whole thing is a scare story made up by the BBC to make evaders pay up. Others believe that, like Orwell's Room 101, the dreaded device is real and speculate as to how it works. This online forum very soberly debates the merits of various theories about the existence -- or nonexistence -- of TV detector vans. One leading theory is that TV detector vans are a cover story for detection by database.

Despite the prevalence of "detector vans" in TV licensing advertising and literature, the main method of detecting evaders is by the database system known as "LASSY", which contains a list of all addresses in the UK. Letters and agents from Capita, referred to as "enforcement officers" or "enquiry officers", are sent to any address listed in the database as not having a TV licence.

No evidence from any kind of detection equipment has been used by Capita in any UK court case to date. Some speculate that such evidence would be inadmissible because information about how such equipment works is not known (unlike for example Gatso speed cameras, which require regularly updated calibration certificates); however, a more accurate reason is that use of the detection equipment would constitute covert surveillance - evidence from which is inadmissible in court unless properly authorised in line with the Police Act 1997 and Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. In other words, TV detection vans are used solely for scaring evaders into coughing up the license fee.

But some argue, with equal vehemence, that detector vans do exist.

They certainly do exist - I've seen inside one. Most older models work by detecting the IF (intermediate frequency) leakage from the set (39.5Mhz ish usually). They can detect any set tuned to any broadcast. Even if you're watching a DVD, the internal tuner in your TV will probably still be receiving and can be detected. Newer models can do the above and detect the leakage from the high voltage scanning on the monitor. Some can even give a copy of the display of whatever is being watched. I believe this has been used industrial espionage once or twice.

Imagine that: "covert surveillance" techniques to find out if -- you have a TV. Interesting possibility. Which got me to thinking whether one could use RF shielding to block the leakage which might be detected by the BBC. People in the "West" very often assume that people in other countries live very similar lives. That's true in most cases, but not so true, perhaps, in others. Have a good weekend everybody!


Blogger Oldo said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/01/2007 02:40:00 AM  
Blogger Ordinary Golfer said...

I'm flabbergasted that any level of government could consider any kind of tax for having a Wi-Fi setup, let alone the extortionate amount you describe.
I keep hearing that Belgium is the true home of bureaucrats but this is beyond belief even for a bunch of left-wing no-hopers.
You couldn't seriously consider actually living or working in such an environment.

4/01/2007 02:40:00 AM  
Blogger Oldo said...

Easy! Just correcting some typos!
Not only in Belgium! Slightly right beside the monitor lies second UNOPENED letter from DR - the danish state radio & TV co. I sent the first ONE back with Refusal to accept written on it. I don´t own a radio nor TV-set, but recent legal change compels anyone with modern mobile phone or computer with internet access to pay the yearly fee og abt. €300.
It´s a pity we have (nominally) right-of-centre governement here and they continue with this socialist bullshit!
I won´t pay and am ready to pursue it all the way to €U-court in Strassbourg. I had mobile and computer BEFORE this infamous law, and I REFUSE TO PAY. And no controller pass my door without court order!
DR is infamous for sending 10-hr radio series on blessings of Islam and massive islamic immigration to Europe; putting FIRST time ever a hijab clad fundamentalist furie as "moderator"; 85% of journalist vote LEFT of Social Democrats!; almost every TV or Radio News starts with "Bush have done this-or-that-again" or "Israel shot again at children"... drip-drip-drip socialist propaganda straight from Goebels' textbook!
Århus, Denmark.

4/01/2007 02:56:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

From Free Love to a Wi-Fi tax in 35 years!
Jimi Hendrix Meets the Blue Angels
Willow Grove NAS

4/01/2007 04:45:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Let me tell you how it will be;
There's one for you, nineteen for me.
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Should five per cent appear too small,
Be thankful I don't take it all.
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

(if you drive a car, car;) - I’ll tax the street;
(if you try to sit, sit;) - I’ll tax your seat;
(if you get too cold, cold;) - I’ll tax the heat;
(if you take a walk, walk;) - I'll tax your feet.

'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Don't ask me what I want it for, (ah-ah, mister Wilson)
If you don't want to pay some more. (ah-ah, mister heath)
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Now my advice for those who die, (taxman)
Declare the pennies on your eyes. (taxman)
'Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

And you're working for no one but me.

4/01/2007 05:45:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Pennies off a dead man's Eyes

"This is about as low as you can stoop for a dollar,"
Sheriff Jack Strain said.
Strain said Stockdale, an emergency room clerk, allegedly sent her son text messages with names, birth dates and Social Security numbers of patients who were near death or had recently died. Ezell then used that information to submit credit card applications in the dead patients' names, using addresses of hurricane-damaged, unoccupied homes near his house in Slidell, authorities said.

Now about that book. It's entitled "Pennies, Off a Dead Man's Eyes." It was written by someone named Harlan Ellison and was first published in 1969. The description is interesting if not a tad bit dated:
If you steal the pennies off a dead man's eyes, you send him to hell, for he has no way to pay for his passage.
Who is this woman who dares to take the pennies from a dead man's eyes?
The foundling whom the dead man raised is going to find out, that's for sure.
And he'll use all his abilities to do it.

4/01/2007 05:48:00 AM  
Blogger Tyler said...

Ordinary golfer said:
You couldn't seriously consider actually living or working in such an environment.

After the special operations tax retrieval vans break in, I can just hear the people realize this and say: "we are the dead," a la 1984.

4/01/2007 06:21:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Find it in your Heart to give to those in need.

4/01/2007 06:29:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Dollars for TeleBubba:

"It no longer makes sense for us to debate whether or not the earth is warming at an alarming rate, and it doesn’t make sense for us to sit back and wait for others to act.

The fate of the planet that our children and grandchildren will inherit is in our hands, and it our responsibility to do something about this crisis."

— William J. Clinton
Clinton Climate Initiative

4/01/2007 06:35:00 AM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

It is nothing like this absurd WiFi tax but if want a daily irritant add up the different taxes on your cell phone bill.

4/01/2007 06:56:00 AM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

Pretty soon they will be!

You know, it! ;-)

4/01/2007 07:22:00 AM  
Blogger Jamie said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/01/2007 08:34:00 AM  
Blogger brough said...

Newer models can do the above and detect the leakage from the high voltage scanning on the monitor. Some can even give a copy of the display of whatever is being watched.

It is highly doubtful that the BBC has anything approaching this level of sophistication. Quite apart from anything else, it would be utterly pointless as you need a TV license even for non-BBC channels. A wild claim like this leads me to suspect the guy made the whole thing up.

It *is* possible to reproduce the visual output of a CRT display and even (reportedly) LCD display, I just think this requires extremely high-end equipment in both cases--the latter particularly, as the rf emissions are obviously considerably lower with an LCD.

Perhaps the BBC resort to a poor-man's 'visual tempest' and watch for the flicker behind the curtains?

wretchard, more on TEMPEST here:

"Tempest in a Teapot" article concerning RF shielding:

Perhaps be wasn't embellishing his story about the van. The crt screen vulnerability is hardly widely known...

If that guy is indeed reporting what he saw, why are BBC vans decked out eavesdropping equipment that has 'state' -level sophistication? It certainly has nothing to do with TV licensing.

A Forbes article on TEMPEST gives an indication how sophisticated the BBC vans would need to be to read TV screens:

"If you're doing this in a demonstration in a hotel room, from only a few feet away, it's a slam dunk," he explains. "But once you're beyond anything more a dozen feet, it gets really dicey. While technically you can do it, you'd need antennas that are 30 feet long and about 50 feet wide."

He once calculated the size of the antenna that would be required, to pick up monitor emanations from a computer inside the White House while outside on the street. He estimates it would take an antenna 45 feet tall and 30 feet wide extended into the air about 30 feet. The antenna would have to be mounted on the trailer of the semi truck filled with complex signals intelligence equipment, parked right outside on Pennsylvania Ave.

4/01/2007 08:35:00 AM  
Blogger Utopia Parkway said...

I pay property tax on my car based on its blue book value. I pay school tax on my electric bill and water bill and Library tax on my property tax bill.

They have to raise the money somehow, I guess.

4/01/2007 08:37:00 AM  
Blogger brough said...

4/01/2007 08:39:00 AM  
Blogger Soldier's Dad said...

I live in London in the late 1980's. I got caught by a TV Detector Van. Being an ignorant American I managed to get off with an exhoribitnt late fee.

As far as the capabilities...Marconi Labs in Cambridge has been around a long time(They mastered transatlantic radio in 1901). There is no shortage of scientists/engineers in the UK that can pick out of the electro-magnetic noise of modern life what ever they choose.

4/01/2007 09:23:00 AM  
Blogger Bob Hawkins said...

If we can believe Peter Wright's autobiography, he made his name in the counterespionage business by using BBC detector van technology to locate spy transmitters.

On the one hand, his autobiography was a NYTimes bestseller, so probably we can't believe it. On the other, it's completely believable that a government would deploy better technology for collecting a ridiculous tax, than for catching spies.

4/01/2007 09:41:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

A while back, when satellite direct TV reception dishes started to become popular, some communities were attempting to tax them and lobbists were attempting to get a national law passed that would allow this. The lobbying was being done by the CABLE TV industry. You see, cable TV companies pay local governments for the right to use the public right-of-ways for their cable routes. And it was deemed "unfair" by both the cable industry and the some local governments for satellite dish users to avoid this tax. So it ain't always just the government trying to tax you.

Recently it was revealed that in certain locations near LA freeways monitors have been set up to record which radio stations the people in the passing cars are listening to. Sounds incredible - but it is easy to pick up the local oscillator signals from nearby radios in order to do this. Try it some time with two AM radios. In fact, in the early days of radio, two sets on the same block frequently jammed each other if operated at the same time. So it ain't always the government trying to find out what you have tuned in.

4/01/2007 09:41:00 AM  
Blogger desert rat said...

"The Divine Right of Data"
as opposed to
"The Divine Right to Data"

4/01/2007 10:53:00 AM  
Blogger Mətušélaḥ said...

Re: 1984

London has video cameras set up in practically every street. But what it will never have, is the jail capacity.

Winston: "Does the Muslim Brotherhood exist?"

O'Brien: "That, Winston, you will never know. If we choose to set you free when we have finished with you, and if you live to be ninety years old, still you will never learn whether the answer to that question is Yes or No. As long as you live it will be an unsolved riddle in your mind." The BBC will make sure of that.

4/01/2007 10:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why don’t They tax our beating hearts and be done with it? Just having a pulse is an imposition on Gaia and Government, clearly.

Surveillance chips implanted at birth cannot be far away. Everything we dream up in sci-fi and poli-sci horror scenarios is coming true. The future is here but most of us are living in the past, in passive denial.

If we vote Europhilic Dem in '08, we'll be willing victims of techno-socialist bondage that'll be coming here soon enough. I'm no reactionary, but of this I'm convinced.

4/01/2007 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger Alexis said...

Until sometime in the 1950's or 1960's, there was something called the Personal Property Tax in parts of the United States. A local county or city assessor would go into a taxpayer's home and assess the value of each piece of property a family owned and then assess a tax based on that.

If you got a new refrigerator, the tax assessor wanted to know. If you got a new radio, the tax assessor wanted to know. Television set, the same. A new bed or sofa, the same. It was intrusive.

It's hard to imagine in modern day the utter lack of privacy involved in assessing the Personal Property Tax, but many states had such a thing only two generations ago.

4/01/2007 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger mike said...

It' April Fool's Day and we are all a Fool for letting gov/state taxing get out of hand. I guess this tax supports the "totally netural BBC" in the it's quest to spread it's good cheer. I'll also guess that the BBC Spy van never ventures into Muslim sections. Why lose your head for something as stupid as a tax? No wonder the Brits can't get their hostages out of Iran...they are to busy taxing their own.

4/01/2007 12:32:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

There's this scene in Easy Rider when the guys sit around a campfire and decide they are hated because because they represent freedom. But the sort of freedom they really wanted was the freedom to be left alone. Once you create a government big enough to take care of most of the things in your life one of the things you cannot have is freedom a la easy rider.

Get your motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Lookin' for adventure
And whatever comes our way ...
Born to be wild
Born to be wild

4/01/2007 02:40:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

Today you probably couldn't remake Easy Rider due to political correctness. Imagine glorifying a bunch of guys running around increasing their carbon footprint on 1,200 cc Harley Davidsons! And warming themselves at a campfire that sends up Greenhouse Gases.

Amazing how those who sought freedom through the collectivized bureaucracy wound up calling in the party poopers.

4/01/2007 02:51:00 PM  
Blogger googlex said...

"The venerable BBC TV detector vans are about to be upgraded to a new technology. The UK will now require a non-tamperable long-range RFID/GPS tag to be included in every new television receiver device. This will enable BBC agents with RFID readers to locate unlicensed equipment. These detectors transmit a stream of wireless enquiries which cause taxable devices within range to respond with their serial numbers and exact locations. The mobile scanners link responses to a BBC database which determines licensing status. If the database does not confirm a valid license, the detector transmits a wireless "kill" signal to the device to terminate TV reception and sound an audible alarm (to embarass and frighten the owner). The central computer will then assess a fine to the owner of the reported GPS address, and in some cases agents may be dispatched. The process is complete in only about 15 seconds. It is reported that the RIAA and MPAA will lobby the Congress to require similar technology in all media devices, but of course in the US the system would be operated by the private sector, and fines would be enhanced by lawsuits. And in the European Union, it has been proposed that such a system could be used to locate soon-to-be illegal incandescent light bulbs. The technology has been tested and initial deployment in the UK will be on .. April 1. "

4/01/2007 04:23:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

"The UK will now require a non-tamperable long-range RFID/GPS tag"
When new TVs have non-tamperable long-range RFID/GPS taggers, only fools will have new TVs.
(Except new Custom Models imported by industrious Muzzies, and available for
sale or barter for explosives at your local Mosque.)


4/01/2007 05:42:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Maybe Blair will take it to the cherished (esp by Cherri) International Court, and see to it that the Mullahs pay their proper
Hostage Taxes.

4/01/2007 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger Starko said...

The British TV tax boils down to "socialized television". And while I'm a fan of some of the BBC's product, I at least have some choice in whether or not I pay for/consume it here in the states.

The Belgian tax on wi-fi antennas is nothing short of pure idiocy. Forget about fairness- if they actually enforce this tax, the economics will largely render the tax pointless.

That is, the cost is so high that the whole point of owning wi-fi equipment disappears (i.e. an easy/economical way to get internet access to another location). Those with the means will simply install hard ethernet lines, those without will simply have to locate their computers in less convenient places or have their laptops tethered to a wall.

Doug mentioned the Beatles' "Taxman", which if I recall correctly they wrote in response to the "super tax" Britain had at the time. I believe the marginal rate for this super tax was in excess of 90%.

In the '80s ideas like the Laffer curve started to get more attention, and stupid taxes like this started going away under Regan, but apparently there are those in Belgium who never got the memo.

The Laffer curve is a curve that shows that the government gets the maximum revenue from something more than 0% taxes, and something less than 100%, the reason being that at 100% nobody works/invests because they reap no marginal gain from their work/investment.

Of course nobody can authoritatively define the Laffer curve that fits the entire population (it's different for each individual), so the concept has never stopped left-leaning politicians from calling for ever higher taxes.

However, the more moderate left-leaner who really just wants to tax and spend as much as possible (as opposed to a true leftist that wants something close to outright communism) would/should support the Laffer concept, at least in theory.

4/01/2007 06:53:00 PM  
Blogger the mad fiddler said...

We who grew up in the decades after WWII were repeatedly reminded that the Soviet bloc and its enslaved Warsaw Pact nations manufactured radios that could receive ONLY the government radio stations. AND that punishment was severe for possession of contraband radios that allowed them to listen to uncensored news from the US.

In Britain, a licensed TV set might be able to receive signals for programs that are not necessarily approved by the government. But the BBC determines to a very large degree, editorial treatment and distribution of information, news, opinion.

It is well to keep in mind that Belgium has a legacy of brutal government. Under King Leopold in the 19th century Belgian oppression of the Congo dispossessed many tens of thousands of Africans, forcing them to harvest and mine the country's natural resources to enrich the Belgian exchequer. The taxes on Wi-Fi antennae is at least consistent.

4/01/2007 07:56:00 PM  
Blogger mike said...

I agree with Born to be Wild. What have we begot? It's the old "Al Gore" touchy feeling thing that breech it's birth and has given know the answers. "As long as it doesn't apply to me" sez the Older to his subjects. In Gore's Hot/cold book quote.."ARE YOU READY TO CHANGE"

I'm not going to but then I don't own land in Tenn. that mines zinc and sends the backwash into a local river. But Gore is a victim don't you see? He has no control over his land. He want's thing to be better. He asked the company that mines the zinc to be extra superduper careful! I love him for his care of the earth and let's not talk about Tobacco or it will send me off to the edge.

Why do I write this? Cause those that want major change in our lives do not belive it applies to them.

Doug: They would never go to court to get a tax from the Muslims. Why? Cause their VICTIMS!

4/01/2007 08:37:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Maybe Al should suspend some lead plates in that river, hook them up to the grid, and add a few Kilowatts to his Carbon Neutral Account.

He can always buy Lead Credits after he sets up that account in some offshore bank.

4/02/2007 03:51:00 AM  
Blogger cj said...

I have to think that the cell service providers are behind this.
If established wi-fi were combined
with voip, ala Vonage, they become
unnecessary. Just the thought breaks my heart.

4/02/2007 08:15:00 PM  
Blogger Rune said...

Damn right. From a fellow DR dissident. The whole premise behind state television is obnoxious from the get go, and should have been buried with the demise of Pravda. Not so surprisingly support for the Danish state media tend to fall along political affiliation. Leftist support it, liberals (European meaning) and rightist oppose it. DR is just catering to its core segment when it sends socialistic propaganda and engage in its many re-education schemes.

4/03/2007 05:31:00 AM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

Not to be outdone by taxing antenna there is another Onionish story about some taxing authority in Belgium taxing barbecues. After all barbecues emit CO(sub)2(/sub).

To enforce this they will patrol in helicopters (black ones most likely) probably spewing multiple orders of magnitude more CO(sub)2(/sub) than they will disincentivize.

Are we being had? At first you think you are but now-a-days who knows?

4/04/2007 08:39:00 AM  
Blogger MikeZ said...

We should look to the EU as a shining example of how things just might turn out here if we aren't careful.

The Socialist EU paradigm seems to be "if it moves, tax it. If it doesn't, tax it anyway."

Fortunately, though, that would never happen here ... would it?

4/04/2007 01:18:00 PM  
Blogger Marcus Aurelius said...

I'z punked re the barbecue story.

4/05/2007 08:53:00 PM  
Blogger Walter Clark said...

You could probably make a lot of money selling bumper stickers that read "They can have my (TV or WiFi, as appropriate) tax when they pry it from my cold, dead hand."

4/08/2007 03:27:00 PM  

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