Excuse the sensationalist headline but this week saw a new addition for our increasingly bulky scrapbook marked: ‘Alarming news stories linking 3D printers to criminality.’ For, just as one stupefied section of the mainstream press seems convinced that 3D printing will soon make mass production as antiquated as the pedal powered cotton gin, there is another, equally bedazzled number of journos decrying it as the work of the devil. And this week the latter gang got some more ammo.
Sydney police reported the arrest of a Romanian man suspected of being part of a gang that have skimmed $100,000 from 15 of the city’s ATMs. The big news is that they did it with devices created on a 3D printer. While it would be a hell of a knee-jerk to claim 3D printing is actually at fault for the crimes, the story does ask questions about how best to tackle criminal behaviour that involves the technology.
The Sydney ATM fraud
The Sydney scam is, basically, the same as the one that fraudsters have been pulling for the last decade. A device is inserted into or over the card slot of a cash machine that copies data from an inserted card’s mag strip, while a tiny camera is placed above the keypad to record the user’s pin. With these two pieces of information, the crooks create a replica card and make a massive withdrawal. It may not be until the card holder receives their next bank statement that anybody realises something is amiss.
By 3D printing the devices crooks cut down on many of the old problems that previously caught them out. Protruding wires, for example, are no longer an issue, as you can precision design your device for each ATM’s slot and tweak it to override a machine’s specific security features. Also, the cost of destroying a skimmer that has been detected is reduced thanks to the (relative) simplicity of creating a new one.
Don’t worry, we are not attempting to stir you into a moral panic about the corruptive power of 3D printing. As with every major technological advancement before it, the 3D printer will be put to nefarious uses by determined criminals. It does not make the technology bad, merely proves its usefulness and the need for people in power to take it seriously. Yet this story, just like stories regarding counterfeit products and the Liberator pistol, does raise an important issue.
Namely, will the law need to adapt to make special exemptions for/ restrictions on 3D printing? And, if so, how quickly does it need to do so?
3D guns and the self policing strategy
When Cody Wilson fired the Liberator, a plastic pistol designed in CAD and printed on a Stratys Dimension SST, on a Texas firing range back in May, he was making a point about gun control in America. A crypto-anarchist law student, his intent was to ask an increasingly gun-control favouring White House: how can you curtail ownership of a product citizens can legally make in their own homes?
Considering a pistol can be picked up at a gun fair for about 50 bucks States-side, the question was political rather than practical. The cost to an American criminal, in both time and money, of purchasing a 3D printer and the right material and then creating their own weapon is far higher than that of just buying one legally or on the black market.
In a country like the UK, however, where getting your hands on a gun is far tougher, introducing the ability to print a serviceable pistol becomes a far more troublesome prospect. Under current UK firearm law, any lethal barrelled weapon from which a missile of any sort can be discharged is subject to extremely strict licensing legislation. Those not involved in either sport shooting or pest control will find a license very hard to come by and even those with permits have their access to ammunition severely restricted. The result? Some of the lowest death by firearm rates in the Western world.
Therefore, printing your own Liberator at home would very much be a criminal offence on UK shores. Yet is the sheer fact of its illegality going to be enough to prevent those intent on causing chaos from printing their own guns? One would assume the answer is no.
So what is the best way to retain the UK’s enviable gun crime statistics without curtailing people’s access to the technology itself? Danish 3D printer company Create It Real believes it is self-policing. It released a programme soon after Wilson’s display that recognises STL files containing blueprints for guns and refuses to print them, similar to the Photoshop feature that prevents users counterfeiting money. Of course, should more companies adopt this programme, it will surely only spur gun designers into re-arranging their blueprints until they find a model undetectable to the system.
Trying to come up with a similar blocking system for ATM skimmers is even more problematic. While the blueprints for the Liberator were proudly made public, the crooks behind these devices did not share their designs, which makes detecting them almost impossible.
The copyright question
Hanging above the future of cheap, home-based 3D printing is the issue of copyright. As the price of a usable 3D printer falls and the number of sites offering downloadable designs swells, the temptation for people to print off copyright material, from phone cases to machine parts to geeky figurines, becomes a hot one. Already this year we’ve seen numerous cases of infringing designs being forcibly removed from sites across the web. Shapeways, one of the leading made-to-order 3D blueprint sites, has strict guidelines in place to prevent designers uploading anything that violates trademarks to its catalogue.
Yet, as the market grows and as the equipment becomes more readily available, less scrupulous sites with less fussy views on copyright legislation may soon appear and, indeed, flourish. Hollywood execs and record label bosses will both testify that the general public has a curious moral black spot where the issue of ‘sharing’ intellectual property online is concerned and there are only so many people you can sue when half the planet is downloading your property from the web.
The issue evolves when you consider original designs made and sold by independent designers. Recently, popular designer Asher Nahmias accused Stratasys of copyright infringement for using objects printed from his blueprints in its trade show displays. Here you have an amusing flip-flop of the usual piracy confrontation. Rather than the large corporation going after the enterprising individual for accessing its property, it’s the little guy pointing the finger at the big guy and crying foul. Expect it to be the first of many such cases as 3D modelling becomes a more attractive career choice.
The question of how to legislate for those using 3D printers for criminal activities seems unanswerable. Perhaps the UK has no option but to rely on its citizens to use this technology responsibly. After all, a single-minded whack-job could cause terrible damage with nothing more than a milk bottle and some petrol, and those items can be picked up at any motorway service station in the country.