3D guns, copyright nastiness, and printers gone wild

Did you see the recent story about police in England seizing a 3D printer suspected of producing parts for a weapon – a pistol in this case? Yes, the Greater Manchester Police Department was swiftly nipping hi-tech crime in the bud. The only problem: The poor unsuspecting “criminal” was printing out spare parts for a 3D printer. UK law enforcement seems undaunted in its pursuit of would-be criminal printers writ large, those unsuspecting folks who might start out printing up innocent 3D projects, but could slide into a dubious life of 3D weapon printing sprees, or who-knows-what-else.

But when does a chunk of 3D printer resin become a cold blooded weapon – a pistol in the planning? Is it when the poor schmuck hits Ctrl-P and sends it to the print spool? Or perhaps even earlier, when his friend in a more digital-pistol-friendly part of the globe emails him the source document? Then again, up until the time the requisite pieces are assembled to form a weapon (albeit a short-lived one), it seems to be a pile of random resin, waiting to be massaged into a final form with the “Print” button (and a few extra screws and assorted non-lethal doo-dads).

While law enforcement minds were busy sorting all that out, along came the 3D scanner, a perilous force multiplier whose pieces of wizardry have the ability to enable  some poor schlep to start scanning things – things that may be copyrighted – and then email them to a friend, like a pistol. Or really not a pistol, but its digital concocted equivalent of coordinates, rates and depth of plunge cuts intended to eventually form a tooled up copyright rip-off – if it falls into the wrong hands.

Here we enter the murky digital intersection which software folks decades ago attempted to navigate (albeit in the physical sense this time). And it didn’t work. We were made to assume that if someone copied a CD it was tantamount to shoving a starving artist ‘neath a southbound train (which even sounds like a song lyric), and that there exists some pseudo-holy higher ground that we must maintain to prevent the infectious mayhem that would ensue.

And then iTunes came along. We stopped caring as much, because those same artists now stood to make millions, a few pennies at a time.

And so it goes. Now mere mortals have the ability to scan the real world and print out, distribute, modify and geekify the output to be something either very similar (and possibly different or even ‘better’) than whatever “protected” item they started with.

So will we have DCMA cops assigned to digital printer/scanner combos now? Not quite. A resin printer, while raising the geek bar if you have one droning away in your geek cave as it reproduces obscure printer parts, is still quite a bit shy of producing ammo grade pistols, despite stern warnings from UK’s finest. You see, when you fire a round in these newly minted weapons, there’s a fair chance of them blowing themselves to bits, thereby preventing many repeat customers from plinking out glowing product reviews.

But what if they get better, and they do become good? What if, by some stroke of luck, the replicas become better than the originals, and pistol manufacturers feel the heat? We’ll see. In the meantime, the resin cops haven’t been properly prepared to deal with such threats, and don’t bet on them being ready anytime soon. Then again if the e-guns get too good…

Author Cameron Camp, ESET

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