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The Dark Side of 3D Printing

Here at Replicator World, we’ve spent a lot of time exploring the many, varied applications of 3D printing.  From broken faucets to iPhone cases to chocolate to jet engines, the possibilities are staggering and exciting. 

But what about frightening?

After all, with these machines becoming more and more capable of printing everything and anything you can imagine, it was only a matter of time before 3D printing got used in a criminal capacity. 

The three largest black markets of the world are the drug trade, the exotic species trade, and the arms trade.  Indeed, the drug trade accounts for just below 1% of the global economy.  That’s roughly $321.6 billion a year!  It makes sense that those profiting from these trades would use 3D printing in order to get a leg up on their competitors. 

Lee Cronin, a chemist at Glasgow University, recently created a 3D printing “chemputer”.  His vision is to create a directory of downloadable prescription drugs.  With his new machine, he has basically converted a 3D printer into a chemistry set. 

“Nearly all drugs are made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, as well as readily available agents such as vegetable oils and paraffin.  With [this] printer it should be possible that with a relatively small number of inks you can make any organic molecule.”  Cronin says. 

While his vision for readily available drugs is noble, the machine could be hacked.  It could be modified so that it prints out illegal, harmful drugs, in whatever quantity desired.  The same could be said for bioprinters currently in various stages of development.  Exotic species could become print-on-demand commodities.

But it doesn’t stop at just drugs or biological products.  More mundane, everyday objects could be 3D printed with criminal intent.  Home, office, or car keys.  Credit cards.  Indeed, as demonstrated by a hobbyist lock-picking group in Germany called Sportsfreunde Der Sperrtechnik – Deutschland e.V., you can even print a key, which will unlock police handcuffs.  As reported by PC World, “[they were] able to measure and reproduce the key accurately by using nothing more than a photograph of the key hanging from the belt of a police officer plus some basic math to gauge its size.  Afterwards, [they] not only printed out a copy of the key to test, but also put the model up online for anyone to print.” 

3D Printed Handcuff Key 

Though this was just a hobbyist group demonstrating the capabilities of 3D printing, this technology has been used in actual crimes as well.  A gang of robbers was prosecuted in September 2011 for stealing more than $400,000 dollars using ATM skimmers.  (Skimmers are devices, which fit over ATM machines and steal debit and credit card information from ATM users.)  These skimmers were printed on high-tech machines. 

This sort of crime isn’t new, however, as Michael Weinberg says.  Weinberg is the senior staff attorney with Public Knowledge, a public-interest group.  He’s written a legal white paper on the future of 3D printing and intellectual property called “It Will Be Awesome If They Don’t Screw It Up”.  In it he states, “one of the challenges the 3D printing community is going to have is going to be to remind people that just because it involves 3D printing, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be new.  The ability for people to manufacture these…pieces for instance has existed for as long as those pieces have existed, thanks to metalworking and milling machines.”  It is still probably cheaper to create these illegal objects using these older, more traditional fabrication technologies.  However, this is changing.  Once 3D printers start showing up in every house and business, this type of criminal activity is likely to become easier.

Just look at the weapons trade, for example.  Marc Goodman, a global security expert and futurist, in the above TED talk (skip to the 9th minute), predicted that 3D printed weapons were just around the corner. 

3D Printed Gun

Well, that prediction has already come true.  Have Blue, a blogging website, printed the above .22 pistol.  The blogger even fired 200 rounds to prove that it worked.  And if you can print a pistol, it’s no great leap of the imagination to go from that to larger, much more destructive weaponry. 

3D Printed Gun Magazine

Perhaps even more frightening, however, isn’t when people print out whole guns.  It’s when they modify them.  Look no further than MakerBot’s Thingiverse, a directory of 3D printed designs.  A user there posted the designs for an AR-15 magazine.  (A fully automatic AR-15 has the ability to fire 800 bullets a minute.)  This design can only hold five rounds of ammunition, and is therefore completely legal.  But whose stopping someone from modifying that design?  Extending the ammunition capacity of the gun?  Someone could easily print out a working, unregistered assault weapon. 

Moderating this sort of technology may not be all that easy, either.  As Weinberg says: “anybody who thinks they know what the world looks like with this is probably deluding themselves.  There’s a real danger from a policy standpoint that you’ll start worrying about this before you even know what it is.”  Indeed, adds Goodman, we may not even know what’s in store for the future of crime with the added dimension of 3D printing: “organized crime has benefited from the scarcity of illicit goods and by trafficking in black market products.  Their near monopolies have allowed them to control the nearly $2 trillion annualized trade in illicit goods.  But what happens to their business model when guns, drugs and animals are democratized?  How will they respond?”

The same question could be asked of law enforcement as well.  If the criminal underworlds are about to be spun on their heads by this technology, how could law enforcement possibly predict the specific outcome?  Weinberg illustrated the problem clearly: “It’s not time to ignore 3D printing, but it’s probably too early to start constructing the policy framework.  It’d be like trying to regulate the Internet in 1992.”

Video Courtesy of TEDtalks

Quotes/Photos Courtesy of Forbes and PC World.        

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