The criminal side of 3D printing

There is almost no limit to what you can make with a 3D printer, and most uses are legitimate. Most, but not all. (WCHS/WVAH)

There is almost no limit to what you can make with a 3D printer, and most uses are legitimate.

Most, but not all.

Any object in the world could be printed in this machine and those like it, found in a back room of the Robert C. Byrd institute in Huntington

“3D printers are used for a multitude of things,” said Jamie Cope, Director of the institute.

Cope watches over the printers as they churn out everything from Cleopatra, to complex machine models, and the Eiffel Tower.

“There’s limitations to what they can do like any other tool out there,” Cope said, “but it’s growing every day and the capabilities are getting broader with different types of materials.”

It all starts with an engineer loading a 3D scan into the printer like a key model. Once it’s loaded, the printer begins laying material layer by layer and slowly an object forms.

The key took roughly 15 minutes to take shape.

3D blueprints can be found all over the internet on sites like Thingiverse offering every model you could possibly imagine.

The problem begins when colorful aliens aren’t the models people choose to print and spread across the internet.

Thieves can take advantage of something as harmless as a Facebook photo with a 3D printer. If you’ve got a picture of a key in one of your photos, they can decode the key’s ridges and print that as easily as the generic key.

Then they would have access to everything you want to stay locked up and you’d never know.

Police say this type of petty crime is unlikely.

“It’s definitely on our radar because it’s already been used for criminal purposes,” said Thom Kirk, director of the Fusion Information Center.

The Fusion Center gathers and distributes criminal information across the county.

Kirk said 3D printer related crime has never been reported in West Virginia.

“It doesn’t mean it’s not out there, we just haven’t seen it,” Kirk said.

Kirk said that may be because the tech takes a wide knowledge base to use, and the machines can be pricey.

The RCBI machines cost $2,000 a piece and more advanced printers could run into the millions of dollars.

“If you go to our metal printer you’re talking easily a half million dollars,” Cope said.

What is currently happening, Kirk said, is large scale organizations using half million dollar machines to print untraceable guns, handcuff keys, and soon, when the technology is widely available, criminals could print their own designer drugs from home by laying down layers of chemicals.

“We’ve seen no designer drugs here, but without a doubt it’s coming,” Kirk said.

Kirk said it’s difficult to stay ahead because every new issue pits law enforcement against the entire global internet community working in tandem to find the next best way to outsmart them and once it’s out, there’s no getting it back.

“As long as you give people the ability to create things,” Cope said, “they’re going to be able to create whatever they’re interested in.”

Cope said the negative consequences of this technology existing can all be blamed on the person using it.

“You just have to remember that a 3D printer is a tool just like a hammer or a saw, but it’s the intent of the person using it that determines what it’s used for.”

The positives, he said, far outweigh the negatives and, until police get ahead of rapidly changing technology and the criminals taking advantage of it, the bad will come along with that good.

The only way to stay ahead of the bad, Kirk said, is a thriving intelligence community aided by tips from a vigilant public.

“It’s hard for me to judge how important that is,” he said, “I know when I was a young trooper I would have loved to have information like that.”

Kirk said with technology growing the way it is its likely next year will bring even more capabilities no one is even considering right now.

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