3D printed designs easily stolen by nearby smartphone

3D printers have been shown to be vulnerable to attack by smartphones that can steal designs by being within close proximity during the printing process.

A study from the University at Buffalo, USA explored security vulnerabilities in 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, which analysts say will become a multibillion-dollar industry employed to build everything from rocket engines to heart valves.

"Many companies are betting on 3D printing to revolutionise their businesses, but there are still security unknowns associated with these machines that leave intellectual property vulnerable," said assistant professor Wenyao Xu, who worked on the project.

Unlike most security hacks, the researchers did not simulate a cyberattack because many 3D printers have features, such as encryption and watermarks that are designed to foil such incursions.

Instead, the researchers programmed a common smartphone's built-in sensors to measure electromagnetic energy and acoustic waves that emanate from 3D printers. These sensors can infer the location of the print nozzle as it moves to create the three-dimensional object being printed.

The smartphone, at 20cm 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 per cent accuracy rate. For complex objects, such as an automotive part or medical device, the accuracy rate was lower, but still above 90 per cent.

"The tests show that smartphones are quite capable of retrieving enough data to put sensitive information at risk," said professor Kui Ren, co-author of the study.

The richest source of information came from electromagnetic waves, which accounted for about 80 per cent of the useful data with the remaining data came from acoustic waves.

The study shows how anyone with a smartphone theoretically has the capability to steal intellectual property from an unsuspecting business, especially ‘mission critical’ industries where one breakdown of a system can have a serious impact on the entire organisation.

"Smartphones are so common that industries may let their guard down, thus creating a situation where intellectual property is ripe for theft," said assistant professor Chi Zhou.

The team suggested several ways to improve the security of 3D printing, but keeping devices such as smartphones distant from the process was said to be the simplest and easiest way. The ability to obtain accurate data for simple objects diminished to 87 per cent at 30cms, and 66 per cent at 40cms.

Another option is to increase the print speed. The researchers said that emerging materials may allow 3D printers to work faster, thus making it more difficult for smartphone sensors to determine the print nozzle's movement.

Other ideas include software-based solutions, such as programming the printer to operate at different speeds and hardware-based ideas like acoustic and electromagnetic shields.

3D printing technology is used for an increasingly wide array of products. Earlier this year, separate teams showed how it can be used to create clothes and replacement human body parts.

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