Fire from tempering with energy meter

Videos showing how to hack smart energy meters ‘pose danger to society’

Image credit: Abi Smith

As YouTube is attempting to improve its community guidelines, a utility company has called for the removal of thousands of videos which demonstrate how to tamper with smart energy meters.

A utility company has called for the removal of thousands of YouTube videos which demonstrate how to tamper with smart energy meters. The videos educate viewers on how to rig their own devices, a potentially dangerous and illegal practice that risks electrocution to those that attempt it, or even explosion. 

Fiddling with energy meters kills two and injures 36 people annually, while costing the system £440m, according to figures from Stayenergysafe

A new report by utility customer service expert Echo Managed Services calls for action by the government after finding that only a small proportion of around 100 videos sampled feature warnings into the dangers to human health and safety when attempting to emulate the questionable practice.

The investigation found 94,700 videos, which collectively had millions of views”, when searching ‘how to hack your energy meter’.

Piechart showing top 20 youtube videos on meter hacking

Image credit: Piechart showing top 20 youtube videos on meter hacking

Of the top-ranking 20 videos, E&T tested the claims and found that 16 videos explicitly explained how to tamper with an energy meter. Together, those reached more than 17 million views. The level of sophistication varies, however. Some videos show how to apply a magnet to an energy counter, while others contain detailed instructions on how to take the meter device apart. Of those videos, only two issued some sort of warning, either presented in verbal form or explicitly in writing.

On videos illustrating the effects of holding a magnet against the meter to decelerate the counter, Mark Coles, head of technical regulations at the IET, remains sceptical whether this actually works on UK electricity meters. He warns that the illegal extraction of electricity can lead to a fine or a prison sentence.

Other findings suggest that many consumers may be unaware of the risks involved in the practice. According to the Echo research consumer surveys, 39 per cent or around two out of five consumers are incognisant of the threat meter tampering causes to public safety. Precise numbers on how many may suffer death and injury are hard to establish; proving the link between energy theft and personal injury or damage is often difficult to ascertain. “It can be hard to prove due to the severe damage electrical fires and gas explosions can cause,” states a disclaimer on Stayenergysafe.

YouTube announced in January that it was upgrading its community guidelines after the popular ‘Bird Box challenge’. It issued a series of specific updates on ‘dangerous challenges and pranks’.

The media giant took action after the proliferation of the so-called challenges, with some reportedly resulting in death or injury. Despite appeals to fight disturbing material, a Buzzfeed report found evidence that YouTube’s pledge to entirely remove disturbing videos was unsuccessful and that links keep appearing.

Lloyd Birkhead, managing director of Grosvenor Services Group, who conducted the survey on YouTube videos, said: “It’s shocking that such dangerous tutorials are allowed to exist on the world’s biggest social media platforms. They pose a real danger to society. Methods employed in these videos should never be carried out by a skilled technician – let alone an untrained member of the public.”

Linechart for Google search results


Image credit: Linechart showing google search results for energy meter

YouTube’s ruling explicitly targets content that encourages violence or dangerous activities that may result in serious physical harm, distress or death. If viewers of tutorials would suffer injuries as a result of meddling with their energy meter, would YouTube consider the videos potential for causing damage?

Injury is not the only conceivable consequence from people trying to emulate the meter-rigging practice. In the UK, the practice is illegal. Videos that may originate from other parts of the world, where there is a legal grey zone, send clueless consumers to prison.

Last year, the BBC reported that nearly 50 people were given prison sentences over a three-year period for stealing electricity. Despite this, merely every 1,000th case investigated results in prosecution.

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