A new report from The Economist describes the state of 3D print crime.
The Economist is a well-regarded international publication focusing on global business, politics and the economies. Their “Intelligence Unit” published a paper entitled, “Unintended Consequences, Unexpected Benefits: Technology, crime and illicit trade”.
The paper examines three recently emerged technologies to understand their social and business effects going forward. The technologies include Encryption, where practices like ransomware are considered a “top priority threat”, and Blockchain, initially feared due to untraceable financial activity with cryptocurrencies, which has led to methods of properly and accurately tracking all manner of products.
The third technology they investigate is, of course, 3D printing. They describe the current situation as:
“Advances in 3D printing have made the technology increasingly viable on a commercial scale. The direct role 3D printing had in meeting shortages of PPE near the start of the covid-19 crisis has been well reported. Nevertheless, as with blockchain and encryption, much has been made of the criminal potential of 3D printing. Conventional wisdom says 3D printing is a problem for law enforcement to manage, rather than a tool to be leveraged.”
Upon reading this, I felt they’d dig deep into the overblown “3D printed guns” issue, but that was not the case. While they acknowledged there are some minor concerns in that area, they were actually focusing on an entirely different aspect:
“While much has been made of the threat from printing firearms from scratch, there is a similarly nefarious risk of converting replica guns into fully functional weapons by printing just a few missing requisite components. Even more concerning is the evidence of a decentralised online movement actively promoting the proliferation of illicit, 3D-printed guns, by sharing blueprints and encouraging production.”
This is the issue they are most concerned with: moving designs silently through international borders, where items can be produced using 3D printers on the other side.
They believe, perhaps correctly, that the role of customs in the future should be less of collecting duties on physical goods passing through borders, and more on protecting countries from the incursion of harmful designs. They said:
“The subversive impact of 3D printing could require an evolution in customs administration. Raw materials could make up a growing share of international trade as manufacturing supply chains contract in the direction of the end user. The European Commission’s trade policy outlook beyond the covid-19 outbreak finds several ways in which 3D printing will affect the prioritisation and method of implementation. Intellectual property rights, trade in services and data transfer are all areas 3D printing is likely to disrupt. Adequate regulatory frameworks to manage these areas of concern are crucial to keep 3D printing away from illicit activities.”
I’m not sure how that is going to work, as it is essentially impossible to determine what a 3D design is or isn’t. Even more complex is simply the question, “what exactly is a weapon?” You can’t just write some words to properly control this, as designs are of infinite variety. Even worse, they can be encrypted and you will have no idea what they could be.
Finally, The Economist suggests that by using “fingerprints” it might be possible to gain insight into the origin of physical objects. The idea is that a 3D printer can, by design or accident, include detectable variations in the prints that can be traced and tracked. The goal would be to ensure that arriving goods are authentic and not counterfeit.
This seems possible, as manufacturers could securely publish the fingerprints for their equipment, which could then be matched at the border. But then, ingenious criminals will no doubt figure out a way to get around that, too.
In any case, the report is an interesting and thought-provoking read.
Via The Economist