Copy That, Good Buddy . . . 3D Printing & International Crime
3D printing. It’s “all the rage.”
The magic of producing actual physical objects from computer models is spreading rapidly and affordably into many fields – from hobby and art to entrepreneurial venture; from manufacturing and industry to domestic use; from medicine to forensics and law enforcement.
Recently NASA announced a plan to launch a 3D printer in the fall of 2014 – a toaster-size factory called “Made in Space.” The reason: Create tools and parts in outer space, and eliminate the need for and cost of transporting them from Earth.
No more Apollo 13 drama and duct tape. Move over “Star Trek” replicator.
And to prove 3D printing is not just for geeks, it is already a darling of the media, materializing as plot points on popular television shows such as the hit “Elementary” or appearing as special features on the nightly news. It’s not hard to imagine, somewhere down the media road, channels such as DIY devoting substantial air time to do-it-yourself 3D projects (such as fixing a leaky kitchen-sink faucet – without calling in a plumber – or “printing” a flower pot of your own design).
The possibilities of 3D printing seem limited only by imagination. Right now 3D printers are still expensive, but the technology is rapidly evolving and improving. Pretty soon this technology will be available to many of us, right in the comfort of our own homes.
3D printing – what is this new technology?
First of all – “3D.” Three–dimensional – something solid, an object you can see and feel.
3D printing – or additive manufacturing – is the process of making of a three-dimensional solid object, of virtually any shape, from a digital model (a computer-generated design). The actual technique is accomplished either by “stacking” fine layers of powdered polymer or plastic or by extruding these materials, coiled as strands around spools. Finally, these materials are fused together under high heat, then cooled, forming a hardened resin.
This is an overly-simple example: Think of a book. Now think each individual “page” of this book is actually an ultra-thin, uniquely-shaped polymer or plastic layer. Literally thousands of these “pages” are “printed” and neatly placed one on top of the other. Once done, all these layers are then fused.
The end result? You have a solid object which looks just like the original book . . . but is stronger than steel. The only down side? You can’t read it.
As said, 3D technology and its applications seem endless. Right now it can create realistic prosthetic hands or feet for veterans injured in Iraq or Afghanistan. But it can also be used for criminal enterprise.
Already criminal “geeks” have used 3D printing to victimize credit and debit card holders. Federal prosecutors say a ring of four individuals in Texas did just that when they used 3D printers to create realistic-looking ATM skimmers – to steal personal banking information and, soon thereafter, real money. Allegedly the four men stole over $400,000 before they were apprehended. The Texas D.A.’s office also says the four quite possibly have criminal connections in Mexico.
On the other side of the criminal justice system aisle, 3D technology has aided law enforcement in solving crimes. According to Japan’s Nikkei news service, since 2010 the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department (TMPD) has used 3D printers to recreate 3D models of crime scenes. (Rather than show the jury crime-scene photographs, a prosecutor can provide detailed 3D models complete with floor plans and even the furniture.)
The TMPD has also used this technology to print out evidence – everything from the victim’s skull in a murder case to the crucial footprint of a perpetrator.
According to noted forensic researcher Jason Linville, of the Center for Information Assurance and Joint Forensics Research in Alabama:
Once you have [3D] footprints, you can easily compare them . . . to generate a more objective match than you could by relying on [human] judgment. Because you can print an impression that doesn’t require handling, like a plaster cast, you can create multiple copies that are exactly the same. That is physical evidence that you could take to court.
Disturbingly, 3D technology can also be used to create a gun (something not lost on the writers of the season-opening episode of “Elementary” nor on the Texas man who successfully fired one in May 2013).
Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Defense and the State Department forced a private company, Defense Distributed, to censor making its 3D handgun plans available on the Internet (a single-shot pistol known as “The Liberator” – a sly reference to a handgun used by the French underground during WWII). The plans had been downloaded as many as 100,000 times before this shutdown – with many downloads occurring overseas.
The ability to create a plastic firearm is viewed by the U.S. government as a real threat to national security – as a non-detectable, “scan-proof” weapon at airports and on aircraft, at other ports of U.S. entry and on other conveyances, at public buildings, etc.
This is where technology gets tangled with emotion: On the one hand, 3D technology is being hailed as a breakthrough for Second Amendment advocates – for the right to bear arms – but on the other hand it is being seen, with an equal amount of alarm, by gun control advocates. Both sides have equally vivid scenarios – pro and con – for its use.
The Blanch Law Firm is already studying the impact of 3D technology – from its wide benefits to its unintended threats.