3D printers hackable via smartphone

A smartphone’s built-in sensors can be used to swipe important intellectual property, such as product models and prototypes, by reading a combination of acoustic traces and electromagnetic energy as a 3D printer’s print head moves across a platen.

New research discovered that it’s not just the sounds that the nozzle makes as it prints the model that gives the game away, as was previously thought. A new study indicates that by combining the collection of sounds with electromagnetic readings, hackers can obtain a powerful facsimile of what’s being made.

In this new research, scientists from the University at Buffalo say that by adding electromagnetic energy readings to collected sounds, they can get a better result compared to just sound. In their experiments, they say electromagnetic readings accounted for 80 percent of the useful data they used—sounds only 20 percent.

A “smartphone, at 20 centimeters away from the printer, gathered enough data to enable the researchers to replicate printing a simple object, such as a door stop, with a 94 percent accuracy rate,” they say in their press release.

Complex parts, like something from a car’s design, didn’t obtain the same accuracy, but it was still over 90 percent. That would be enough to make lawyers concerned.

“The tests show that smartphones are quite capable of retrieving enough data to put sensitive information at risk,” says Kui Ren, a professor in the university’s computer science and engineering department, and co-author of the study.

One of the problems with 3D printers being hackable is that the machines’ rapid-prototyping functions are being bandied as a form of democratization in manufacturing. They’re the future, some say.

Traditional product development methods, such as modeling using gluing and clay, for example, are out the window, and the 3D printer is supposed to be now bringing a speedy, competitive route to market across verticals. Sub-$500 printers are indeed common now, and at that price, the machines could conceivably end up strewn across many workshops and small manufacturing operations throughout the country. Easy spying could prove problematic for a newly freshened manufacturing industry.

“Many companies are betting on 3D printing to revolutionize their businesses,” says Wenyao Xu, of the university. However, “there are still security unknowns associated with these machines.”

Security functions in 3D printers

3D printers do have security functions, though. Watermarks exist, and the design files can be encrypted. But it’s the actual movement of the nozzle as it squirts the molten plastic to make the three-dimensional form to the printer bed that’s then problem.

Distance would help thwart an attack, the scientists say.

“The ability to obtain accurate data for simple objects diminished to 87 percent at 30 centimeters, and 66 percent at 40 centimeters,” the release explains.

Increasing the print speed or making the speed variable would also help. The smartphone sensors would find it harder to keep track of the movements. Other suggestions include “hardware-based ideas, such as acoustic and electromagnetic shields,” they say.

Acoustic jamming, and simply stopping people from carrying smartphones near the printers are suggestions that were made previously when the initial acoustic thievery method was discovered.

Meanwhile, collecting phones at the door is a suggestion.

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