When color laser printers hit the consumer market back in 1983, the main concern was the printing of counterfeit currencies. To curb this possibility, printer manufacturers added a nearly invisible dot graphic on all printouts for traceability if needed.

Today, 3D printers introduce unprecedented manufacturing autonomy and criminals have begun to exploit this technology. This presents a threat more sinister to the public than counterfeiting as the production of unregulated weapons and military accessories is democratized.

When 3D printing innovators continue their distribution of this powerful technology to consumers, personal manufacturing practices easily bypass official constraints and oversight traditionally experienced by the printing industry.

This latest trend has been made possible by public access to open source CAD (computer-aided design) files online, leading to a rise in Do-It-Yourself (DIY) firearm production. Now, objects once manufactured exclusively by monitored multinational businesses are available for anyone to produce. The printing of a working gun, home, and even a car has demonstrated that there are almost no blueprints too sophisticated for this powerful next wave of the industrial revolution.

History has shown that early adopters of startup technologies can often be criminals looking for alternative means still “under the radar” of law enforcement and legislation. This is a cause for concern as the runaway success of this type of cutting-edge technology could create an unmanageable landscape of DIY threats.

Let’s take a look at instances where 3D printing has begun to compromise public safety.

Printable weapons files online

In 2013, Defense Distributed became the first company to post a handgun blue print online charging only $25 per download. Today, they have 10 different weapon print files available to anyone. Weapon designs include the ‘Liberator, an AR-15 design, AR-10, and Beretta M9’.

3D printed weapons surface in Australia arrest

In 2016, Queensland Police charged five people after finding homemade machine guns, a weapons factory and drug labs during raids on the Gold Coast. Weeks later in Melbourne, an organized crime syndicate consisting of seven men and two women were arrested. During the raid, law enforcement seized two stolen vehicles, drugs, cash and 14 guns including a 3D printer allegedly used to print the guns.

“These downloadable guns are unregistered and very difficult to detect, even with metal detectors, and will be available to anyone regardless of age, mental health or criminal history,” said Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

3D printed weapons for sale on e-commerce sites

In 2018, a man from Sydney was facing time behind bars for 3D printing a gun at his home with the intent to sell. Even though his actual intention was to sell remakes of collector pistols to enthusiasts over eBay, the functional weapons still posed a threat to the buyer and the general public.

What this means for Cellebrite-powered digital investigations

After digital evidence has been accessed and extracted from devices involved in a crime, it could become increasingly relevant to scan phone media for pictures of 3D printed weapons, military paraphernalia or even 3D printers.

This can easily be done using Cellebrite Pathfinder that features automatic image classification of pictures and video. Predefined categories include weapons, drugs and money. For unique objects, faces and places, custom category creation is available and powered by artificial intelligence.

This solution drastically reduces the amount of manual image review, allowing investigators to focus only on imagery that is relevant to an investigation. Further text analysis could also be performed to search for conversations and search queries indicating interest in 3D printed weapons or ways to manufacture them.

As criminals continue to exploit 3D printing for nefarious means, investigators need to meet this modern-day challenge with their own set of innovative technologies and effective image classification is definitely part of cutting-edge digital forensics.

Benefits of 3D printing for law enforcement

Many industries including aerospace, defense and healthcare, are already reaping the benefits of 3D printing, and recently law enforcement has been using this new technology. From helping identify victims of homicide to creating a virtual reconstruction of a crime scene to 3D printable records of evidence, 3D printing is starting to add practical value on multiple fronts of the investigative process.

3D virtual reconstruction of crime scenes and printable exhibits

In the recent San Bernardino bombing incident, law enforcement used 3D laser scanners in an attempt to reconstruct multiple scenes for omni-directional context and fallout analysis. If this technique was more widely adopted, crime scenes could be processed faster and with greater detail resolution.

With only a 15-minute scan, the 360-degree capture of an area’s details creates a comprehensive documentation, even including the area under cars. This permanent digital record could become available for all investigation stakeholders to gain critical insights and resolve investigations faster.

With an average of 14M data points captured within a radius of 1,000 feet, this type of documentation could be processed by machine learning algorithms to discover patterns and relevant details overlooked by frontliners and crime scene investigation methods. Insights gained from these types of reconstructed scenes could be more easily communicated by prosecutors to judges and juries when printed out and presented in courtrooms.

The success of this innovative technology has already prompted the FBI to invest $1M and the US Department of Defense to invest $18M with the hopes of empowering the emerging role of the 3D forensic reconstructionist to deal with high-profile cases.

With the added benefit of converting data to virtual reality environments we are at the beginning of an era of highly-interactive scene analysis.

3D printing faces for virtual autopsy

When trying to identify victims of homicides, 3D scans of bodies together with 3D printing technology can produce reconstructions of faces and other anatomy indicating abrasions, bite marks or other signs of struggle.

Up to this point photographic results have fallen short of representing depth or allowing for multiple vantage points of analysis. Even when partial remains of a face or body are scanned, it improves the positive identification of victims by reconstructing the probable anatomy.

This capability became relevant when Michigan State police turned a deceased victim’s 2D fingerprint file into a 3D printed output. This was needed in order to access the victim’s smartphone that potentially contained digital evidence that could identify a suspect. The phone’s fingerprint identification technology depended on skin conductivity, so a metallic ink substitute material had to be used on the finger to access the device.

3D Printed Robotic Arms for Bomb Disposal Units

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) funded the research and development of camera-aided prosthetic arms to remove explosives and suspicious articles. The ability to remotely deactivate bombs would be a major step forward in saving the lives of explosive removal experts as well as minimize damage to public areas.

3D printing continues to present new obstacles for law enforcement in the form of printed prescription drugs, fake ATM facades to steal card details and master keys for locks. These and many other uses bring new challenges to agencies dealing with terrorism, border security and financial crime.

Yet even with this exploitation by bad actors, the underlying 3D technology will also provide forensics with new ways to solve cases and take crime scene investigation to the next level.

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