Steganography 3D Printing

The Spies in Your 3D Printer

By February 4, 2014. 3D Printing, Featured, Industry Insights

A friend recently sent me a link to an article that was written more than a year ago. In it, writer Cameron Naramore explores the possibility that 3D printers could someday spy on their users. He references the practice of Steganography, describing how large 2D printer manufacturers like Epson and Xerox embed tiny markings during a print job as a way of tracking the use of their printers:

The process of hiding a message inside a message is called steganography and originally these codes were implemented to convince the government that the printers couldn’t be used to forge money; any bills with mysterious dots that showed up under certain lights would be known to be counterfeit. Now however, the codes store information like the model and serial number of the printer and timestamps. That’s pretty useful forensic data. Apparently printing on paper is not entirely anonymous.

Cameron extrapolates that this method could also be used in 3D printing, referencing Stratasys’ confiscation of Cody Wilson’s leased unit when he attempted to print a gun as a sign that it’s not out of the question for a manufacturer to collude with the government. He asks, “What if your MakerBot sent an alert to HQ if you tried to print a gun, or what if it returned a copyright infringement error if you tried to print a Nike swoosh? I’m sure IP attorneys would lobby for it.

Cameron’s paranoia was a premonition of what would happen almost six months after he wrote that post. With the revelations of Edward Snowden — a phrase that will go down in history — it’s become clear that spying on ordinary civilians is exactly the sort of thing that governments and corporations would do. As 3D printers become more widespread and capable enough to produce contraband, it’s entirely likely that the powers-that-be would find ways of controlling 3D prints through software, files and machines.

Eric Holder 3d printingSince he wrote that post, legislators have already made some moves to regulate 3D printers.  US Attorney General, Eric Holder (right), mentioned the technology in a statement supporting the extension of a 1980s ban on undetectable firearms. Rep. Steve Israel sought to specifically include 3D printed firearms in the act’s extension. Luckily, when extended, the act did not include any language about 3D printing. The fear about 3D printing legislation is still real, however. Philadelphia became the first city to ban the practice of 3D printing firearms last year. 

While I haven’t come across any stories of companies suing individuals about 3D printed IP infringement — just 3DP manufacturers suing other manufacturers — it’s definitely on the minds of a lot of people. At every conference I’ve attended, speakers, like IP lawyer John Hornick, address crowds of people about the future implications of 3D printing on existing copyrights.  Research firm Gartner made the prediction that, by 2016, there would be $15 billion worth of IP theft reported due to 3D printing. The Pirate Bay announced that the illegal file sharing site would include 3D models for download and already hosts the files for the Liberator 3D printed gun. The fear of IP theft seems to be palpable, as is the threat.

InfraStructs 3DCode 3D PrintingSince Cameron wrote his piece, a few different methods for tracking 3D objects have been made public. Andre Wegner wrote at 3DPI about the possibility of embedding traceable ID tags on the inside or outside of objects. On the outside, minute differences could be made in 3D prints that hide a particular image, a watermark exactly of the sort suggested by Cameron. The inside could include specific shapes that “can be read utilizing an imaging system using terahertz (THz) radiation,” as Shane describes in an earlier post. Both methods could provide forensic evidence, depending on how the tracing system was programmed, that would link a print to its point of origin, as well as any other significant data.

Create it REAL, meanwhile, believes that they can hinder gun printing with software that will recognize specific “gun-like” parts and halt a print job. When this method is combined with those mentioned above, it’s possible that such embedded watermarks might send a signal to a printing program to prevent the manufacturing of specific prints. When the time comes for Disney to release its 3D files onto the web, they may consider encoding such data into their models for such a purpose. What remains to be seen is if such techniques will be implemented to prevent unwanted uses of 3D printing.

In some ways, I’m used to companies and governments controlling the flow of some data. Disney has the right to guard its intellectual property (though, personally, I think it should probably belong to Disney’s employees, instead). And you can find my opinions on gun control in other places on 3DPI. For those reasons, I’m not particularly concerned about embedded watermarks. Users of the Pirate Bay will likely find ways around those anyway. What concerns me more is the more startling tactics that could be employed to track contraband 3D printer useage.

The United States government has already been caught installing monitoring devices into laptops and monitoring smart phones. Of course, corporations have been complicit in such illegal and unconstitutional activities. Microsoft, for instance, has been documented as monitoring and recording Skype conversations, which are then handed over to law enforcement agencies. Additionally, representatives of the company have previously voiced the desire to include data collection in the first generation of the Microsoft Kinect for marketing analysis.  If Stratasys colludes with the US government to allow them to track the print-tracking webcam installed in the new MakerBots, that’s when control over 3D printing will start to scare me.

I’d rather not live in a world of secret communications, underground networks in which vital 3D printed med files are transferred through encryption software, such as that developed by artist Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, because they violate a corrupt drug company’s patent. The good news is that we’re still in the early stages of the 3D printing game here. The Electronics Frontier Foundation is one organization working to combat control over 3D printing, specifically through patents on the technology. To enhance these efforts: we can begin placing pressure on our governments and corporations, before 3D printing gets too mainstream, to prevent such tactics, as seen with our other technologies, from taking place. We don’t have to stop it there, either. All citizens can write or call their representatives to ensure that environmentally harmful products for and uses of 3D printing don’t take place. Shareholders with stock in 3D printing companies can ask, as investors, that their corporations do the same. If 3D printing really represents a democratizing technology, then we should start making sure it’s democratic before it’s too late.

  • WildZBill

    I can build my own printer, design and print anything I want.
    While that may be rare, I would think that people that want to do something illegal could bring together such talents too.
    The future can not be controlled.

    • Dennis L

      As Ayn Rand said when the gov’t can’t find enough “criminals”, it starts inventing them. The 2nd Amendment is still THE LAW OF THE LAND and no legislation is going to change that.

  • Pfc. Parts

    You’ve just created a huge market for used inkjet printers and you might not even know it :)

    Steganography in Epson printers? How exactly is this traced back to an actual, real, meat and potatoes, arrestable person? Credit card receipts? Christmas cards?

    Or shall we imagine a world in which the prosecutor seizes the property of suspects and subjects them to testing? How might that work? A used Epson printer goes for about $10 on eBay. At that price a dedicated criminal would use it once then burn it. Or better yet, sell it on eBay. I can see it now, Printer Registration comes to America at the behest of IP lawyers. Wow. Benjamin Franklin take note, your heirs and assigns are complete idiots.

    This is just a truly silly line of inquiry.

    • Dennis L

      No need to imagine it – it’s already here. It’s called asset forfeiture.

  • Dennis L

    Welcome to the new Soviet Union.

  • cmcguinness

    “minute differences could be made in 3D prints”? I think we have to get minute accuracy in our 3D prints first!

  • Clarkward

    “All citizens can write or call their representatives to ensure that environmentally harmful products for and uses of 3D printing don’t take place. Shareholders with stock in 3D printing companies can ask, as investors, that their corporations do the same.”

    Michael, when you begin speaking positively about controlling what people print based on YOU not liking it, you are no longer a net positive force in the world. Dictators love control of what people do. You in this article advocate that. Think about it. I will not be 3D printing weaponry, but if you allow the powers that be to ban one printed product because you don’t like it, you establish a precedent for them to ban other products because someone else doesn’t like them. Is that where you want to go, o ye ‘firm advocate of world peace’?

    • Mike Molitch-Hou

      That calling one’s representative or exerting shareholders rights is somehow the path to dictatorship is a really ridiculous conclusion to make. That paragraph is not a call to people who disagree with me, but to people who do agree with me, of which there are likely to be plenty. Either way, to suggest that you “use your democratic rights to encourage your elected officials to voice your opinion as a constituent” or “voice your opinion as an investor” is suggesting the opposite of totalitarianism. If every constituent held their representatives accountable, we’d have a democracy that accurately reflected the will of the people – whether that led to more regulation or less regarding a given activity. And, if you read this article again, I was suggesting that we pressure our government not to spy on us through our technology. You’re confusing my opinions about gun control with 3D printer regulation.

      • Clarkward

        You may label my opinion ridiculous, but I would counter that gathering a group of people together to use the legal framework of our government to ban something that you don’t like has historically been a bad idea. Prohibition is but one egregious example. Using the weight of the collective to limit freedom of expression is not right, even if it may be legal. I have no intention of printing guns on my printers. Mostly model boat parts, small-scale irrigation components, and things for the clinic that I work in.
        I must admit that I did misread your opinion on government spying via home devices. I apologize unreservedly for asserting incorrectly that you were in favor of such things.

        • Mike Molitch-Hou


          I’d still say that using the collective weight to do something that collective believes in is enacting democracy in the most basic way possible. While it may have led to prohibition, collective action also led to the Civil Rights Movement, women’s suffrage, and, some might argue, the American Revolution and the foundation of American democracy. In the Civil Rights Movement, the result was an amendment banning something, racial discrimination, for the greater good. Not all bans are bad things – dumping toxic waste into the ocean, for instance.

          • Clarkward

            I would counter that the Civil Rights Movement and women’s suffrage are a different kettle of fish, as they resulted in removing bans. Certainly you are right about some bans not being bad, but I think that there are many calls for bans on things these days and many times it is simply a matter of ‘I don’t like X, ban it’. The so-called ‘Free-Speech zones’ at colleges and near conventions are an example of such things.

          • Shane Taylor

            I probably missed the cut of the jib here but isn’t the debate between yourselves specifically about whether eco-unfriendly applications should be regulated?

            I read this – and I may be incorrect – as Mike saying that ecological considerations for the prospective oodles of pointless ABS prints may require regulation, but that he believes pretty much everything else’s outside of weapons is game for open production, outside of a reluctant acceptance that I.P. must be maintained, in Mike’s opinion I.P. should be owned by all of an owning companies workers, not just the inventor.

            Clarkward, you appear to have responded that just because Mike doesn’t like the destruction of the Earth’s habitat or people owing devices solely produced to kill, he shouldn’t speak out about it, as that makes him a dictator.

            I may have read this incorrectly? I offer no opinion either way, just trying to keep up…

          • Clarkward

            Honestly, it’s been a month since the exchange in question, and after a long week in the clinic, I lack the energy to re-read the discussion :) I am against placing software bans in 3D printers on two grounds: 1) Basic freedom to make things on a machine that I have paid for, and 2) Like some software that bans ‘adult’ websites (and catches a lot of non-adult websites as well), the software can be wrong, preventing a perfectly harmless print that fits what the programmed specs for ‘a firearm’ are.
            Honestly, since the 3D printers in my house are home made, with open source software that I have modded, I’m not really threatened by a commercial outfit applying such rules. More being concerned for my fellow makers who may not be able to construct their own machines (or, better, who are better off than I am and can afford to buy a nice one). As a liberty-leaning maker, I like information to be free, and the means of production to be as free of outside influence as possible, to maximize people’s ability to lift themselves to higher levels. (Std of living, out of poverty, what-have-you).
            Apart from that, I remain abashed that I initially read Mitchell’s piece so egregiously incorrectly, and I remain apologetic towards him on that score. I maintain that I think we both want humanity to do well as a species, and for the planet not to get trashed in the process. We disagree on minor things and that does not make him my enemy nor a bad person :)

  • BillD

    Placing limitations on the citizens’ rights to own guns was one of the first steps the Nazi party took when they manipulated the people into accepting a police state in Germany prior to WWII. They did it under the premise of “keeping the public safe.” True morons are those people who repeat the same mistake over and over expecting a different result. Those who would sacrifice freedom for safety deserve neither.

    The 2nd Amendment was created specifically so that citizens would always have the means to protect themselves both from criminal acts, and from an oppressive government. Well, that oppressive government is alive and well today, largely due to the sheeple who are easily manipulated via the creation of irrational emotional reactions. Scare them and they’ll accept anything you do in the name of enhancing their safety.

    The fact is, more people are killed by cars and baseball bats every year than all the “terrorists” or mass shootings in the world. Following the fear-based logic of the masses, we should immediately ban the use, manufacture, and sales of both cars and baseball bats. Statistics show that these actions would prevent more deaths than banning guns. Here’s my call to action: Everyone contact your representatives in Washington to get these bans enacted as soon as possible!

    It is no coincidence that the cities in the nation with the toughest gun control laws are the very same cities that rank highest in gun violence. The fact is, gun violence actually increased or remained unchanged after those laws were enacted. Why? First, criminals, by definition, do not follow laws. Second, criminals now know that every law-abiding citizen in those cities is an unarmed victim. The unconstitutional gun ban laws removed all of the risk involved in armed robbery or murder. Nobody is going to shoot back, because they aren’t allowed to own guns. Criminals are free to commit crimes with impunity. How exactly does that make all of us safer?

    Despite what the sheeple have been programmed to believe, the police do not prevent crimes. They solve crimes. They come in after the crime is committed to examine the evidence, hoping to figure out who committed the crime. Nobody calls 911 twenty minutes before a crime is committed so that the police can get there in time to prevent the crime. Somehow, the idiots who think gun bans will make them safer all ignore this fact. The only person who can defend you when an armed criminal breaks into your home is you. Taking a kitchen knife to a gun fight always ends the same way. Criminal 1 – Homeowner 0.

    Let’s look at this another way. How quickly will we see the President take away the guns the Secret Service agents carry? When will we see police armed only with kitchen knives? We won’t see either because they know the only way to defend yourself against armed criminals is for you to be armed, too. Why do they deserve that added safety while the rest of us don’t?

    The government has already begun kicking down doors to seize the gun collections of law abiding citizens. Just Google it. Welcome to the new age of a Nazi police state dressed as a democracy, The sheeple don’t even realize that their shepherds are wolves.

    • Shane Taylor

      Here in the U.K. we are not legally allowed to own guns without strict licensing laws. Your logic suggests that the U.K. is akin to a fascist state?

      As a U.K. citizen it is not for me to suggest – as I have made too strong a comment in the past on various associated with this – how the U.S. should enact laws or conduct itself on the international stage. I am merely conducting research into audience opinion. The differing U.S. / U.K. legal and cultural positions on individual ownership of weapons is an interesting contrast for two bastions of democracy?

      • BillD

        Is the U.K. akin to a fascist state? I can’t answer that for you. Ask yourself these questions.

        Do they routinely monitor the communications of every citizen? Is surveillance increasingly widespread?
        Do they give you the illusion of democracy by offering a choice between candidates which were all hand-picked by the power-eilte?
        Do they forbid you from protecting yourself against government violations of your civil rights under penalty of death?
        Do they have secret courts, tribunals, or special security forces which can snatch you from the street and imprison you without a public trial?
        Do they have secret prisons where perceived “threats” to the government are secretly kept isolated from anyone who might prove their innocence?
        Do they perform any covert actions which are morally questionable?
        Do they regularly invade or conquer nations who have fundamental differences in ideology in order to install more “friendly” leadership?
        Do they torture and assassinate individuals in other sovereign nations around the world in the name of protecting their own “national security?”
        Are these immoral actions celebrated as “patriotic” and any opposition to them depicted as “treasonous?”

        Are you programmed to feel guilty when you have an opinion which differs substantially from the opinion of the government?
        Are your soldiers expected to blindly obey orders regardless of the morality of those orders?
        Does your government have the ability to declare martial law on a whim, enacting curfews, checkpoints, the confiscation of private property, and even military control of its own citizens?
        Does your government publicly justify all of these actions in the name of increasing the “safety” of their citizens?
        Do they try to conceal as much of this activity as they can from the public? When they’re caught, do they spin the immoral activity as being necessary?
        Does the government answer to the people or do the people answer to the government?

        In the U.S., all of these elements are already a reality. Only you can answer those questions for where you live. All I can say is, the “One World Order” power-elite have been very clever in slowly moving us toward worldwide fascist-style rule over these past decades. Inexplicably, nobody seems to have noticed the shift. Many are even happy about these changes, embracing fully the loss of their liberties.

        Ben Franklin said something to the effect that any man who would sacrifice liberty for safety deserves neither. To him, I say, “Well said, sir.”