NEW YORK (MainStreet)—It's called a printer but really is a manufacturing plant in a box. 3-D printers can build an object, layer upon layer, from plastic, metal, glass, ceramics – even chocolate. By now, we have seen that these amazing desktop devices can create guns, human tissue, DNA -- and drugs. As with most emerging technologies, for years 3-D printers were institutional and educational devices priced far beyond the reach of the typical consumer. Now you can buy one on Amazon. Creating your own plastic toy is one thing, but as the technology evolves, the world economy might face a physical hack from the same particle print-on-demand technology.
As cyber security expert Marc Goodman said in his presentation of "A Vision of Crimes in the Future" at the TEDGlobal 2012 conference, "Today most 3-D printers can print more than 50% of the parts required to make another 3-D printer -- a percentage that is increasing rapidly. Once 3-D devices cannot only produce weapons but also replicate themselves, the security and economic ramifications will escalate."
What are the risks to the global financial markets when mobile manufacturing can replicate the physical and the biological -- for illegal profit?
Robert Herjavec is best known as one of the millionaire investors on television's Shark Tank. He is the well-groomed, smiling Canadian – and usually the calmest -- shark on the panel. The program's introduction mentions The Herjavec Group, but offers few details on its function. Turns out Herjavec's firm is a 150 person operation in Toronto claiming to be the country's largest IT security provider. The company consults clients in 50 countries on cyber crime and terrorism, prevention and solutions. So when it comes to next-tech threats, Herjavec naturally has an opinion or two. His first thought when it comes to 3-D printers: he wants one.
"Firstly, I would like approval to order one of these for 'research purposes,'" Herjavec says. "Secondly, if I was to use it for no good; making copies of badges, such a police officer, detective, fireman, and the like, come to mind. Making copies of keys or thumbprints would be simple. Combining these two techniques with social engineering skills, would likely grant me access to banks and other financial institutions that historically would not have been accessible."
But Herjavec sees more of a threat from the technology than just breaking and entering and simple robbery.
"At a more global markets level, the fact that it becomes easy to copy any physical object, share its blueprints online, and then recreate it at home at manufacturing cost, with no shipping charges, would very quickly knock out the widget market right up to the automotive industry," he says. "But why stop there? As industrial sized 3-D printers become available, and blueprints for everything become accessible online, the public will gain access to aerospace technologies, missile designs, robotics, drones, spy gear and more. The era of 'Spy versus Spy' will be born and accessible to the 13-year-old living in his mother's basement."
Now that is scary.
"Many of our SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems that control everything from power, water, traffic, heating, cooling, and various other building or city controls utilize proprietary connectors and technologies that are relatively simple but inaccessible to hackers because of interfacing limitations," Herjavec continues. "3-D printers can instantly solve that problem by creating adaptors that would allow hackers to access previously unreachable systems. By creating these new attack vectors, many businesses and infrastructure systems will face a new era of threats they may not be prepared for."
Herjavec notes that up until recently, only large corporations had the resources and technology to genetically modify organisms. 3-D printers can eventually put this power in the hands of the public -- meaning anyone could create and release a deadly biological attack.
"If you targeted a particular ethnic group, global financial markets could easily be swayed as manufacturing shuts down in one area and moves to another," he says. Transformative tech, like 3-D printing -- also known as "additive manufacturing" --perennially gets into as many hands of the bad guys as the guys in white hats.
Always have, always will.
"There have been technological advances that have shaken the world in a relatively short amount of time, changing it forever -- these included the discovery of electricity, the telephone, the computer, the Internet and now the 3-D printer will join these coveted ranks," Herjavec says. "What can we do to reduce the threat? Adapt. As the bad guys figure out how to use this technology for evil, the good guys will figure out a way to stop them."
--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet