3D printers--desktop devices that can print out objects as easily as your home inkjet prints out documents--are getting less expensive and more common every day, and they promise to revolutionize manufacturing in the same way that desktop printing revolutionized publishing.
I've written elsewhere about how we're at the start of a 3D printing revolution. In the past year, people have used 3D printing to tackle everything from spare parts to entire cars to blood vessels. It seems as though a new use for 3D printing emerges every week.
Unfortunately, though the promise of 3D printing is great, we've also begun to see glimpses of its dark side as criminals--and average citizens who are up to no good--think up dangerous and creepy new uses for 3D printed material.
How About Your Car Key?
When people can replicate any object with ease, you soon realize that there are plenty of objects you don't want replicated. Obvious examples are the keys to your home, office, and car--yet savvy 3D printer owners have already how to do just that: Measure the key, build a 3D model, and print away to produce cheap copies.
If you're the rightful owner, the technology gives you a hassle-free way to generate backup keys, but the process can go terribly wrong. For instance, a member of a German lock-picking group, Sportsfreunde Der Sperrtechnik – Deutschland e.V., used his 3D printer to create a key to unlock handcuffs carried by the Dutch police. Startlingly, he was 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. Afterward, he not only printed out a copy of the key to test, but also put the model up online for anyone to print.
The key was just a proof of concept by an enthusiastic amateur and hasn't been used in the commission of any actual crimes, but real criminals have discovered 3D printers, too. In September 2011, a gang was prosecuted after stealing more than $400,000 dollars using ATM skimmers. The gang's skimmers--devices that fit over an ATM machine and steal the debit or credit card information of unsuspecting ATM users--were created on high-tech 3D printers to help make the skimmer overlays for the ATM machines look as realistic as possible.
These criminals weren't the first to try bilking the ATM-using public. A similar ring was indicted in South Texas in June 2011 after investing some of its ill-gotten gains in more-advanced 3D printers. And last year a legitimate 3D printing service called i.Materialise received an order for an ATM skimmer that it turned down. "Fortunately, our engineers were quick to react," i.Materialise said on its blog, "and after communication with the customer, the decision was made to decline the order. We do not support criminal activity and will do everything in our power to prevent possible crimes."
While most consumers probably can't afford the kind of high-quality 3D printer needed to print out physical objects with the level of detail that these ATM skimmers have, even the consumer-oriented Thing-O-Matic printer from Makerbot, which retails for $1299, can print some pretty scary stuff.
By David Daw