What if…and “3D Printing Criminals”

As discussed here, a criminal gang allegedly stole $400,000 using ATM skimmer devices built with a 3D printer.

ATM skimmers are devices that fit over a typical ATM card slot. They record the information stored on your card’s magnetic stripe. Often the skimmer kit will include a pinhole camera to record a victim entering his or her PIN number. Obviously, the skimmer must appear identical to the original card slot on the ATM in order to avoid detection. Skimmers are often handmade after criminals take a picture of the ATM.

A 3D printer allows for an incredible degree of accuracy. Unless the skimmer came loose, it is very unlikely that an ATM customer would notice anything amiss. Apparently, the idea of using a 3D printer is not new. Last year, a company that fills 3D printing orders blogged about receiving an order for a skimmer (it did not fill the order).

But this gang didn’t submit an order for a skimmer. They simply bought a 3D printer (using funds stolen from other skimmers). Skimmers can cost between $2,000-$10,000 each. A high-end 3D printer costs between $10,000-$20,000. Prosecutors allege the group stole more than $400,000 between August 2009 and June 2011, splitting the profits four ways using their printed skimmers.

Somewhat related, only a couple days earlier, BoingBoing posted an article about using a 3D printer to fashion a piece of an AR-15 assault rifle. While the commenters note that BoingBoing’s article is full of inaccuracies (including the big one–that manufacturing your own component is not illegal, so long as you do not sell it), the idea of using a 3D printer to create an illegal item is becoming more common. And so 3D printers become one of many pieces of new technology that can be used for good or bad. The following paragraph might seem like I’m playing Chicken Little, but really, 3D printing is no different from any other technology–it depends on the user’s intent.

As 3D printers become increasingly cheap and common, what are the potential criminal uses? Currently, most 3D printers use plastic or resin, but there are examples of other materials being use, including bone meal (for replacing bones or for cult practices, you decide). What other materials could be used, and to what end? Why not print a complete lock picking set (instead of buying them online)? For the small time Napster-like criminal, you could violate patents or copyrights by printing items at home. Why not print up brass knuckles or knives that are sharp and heavy but don’t show up on X-rays? Why not print up everything you’d need to open up your own meth lab?

What about non criminal uses? What happens when everyone has access to 3D printers? Will companies hunt down “pattern hackers”? Or will it be something more like the Star Trek replicator, only with licensing fees?

This technology is already finding its way into fiction (see, e.g., Rule 34 by Charles Stross). How would you use 3D printing in your story?

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