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3D Printing and Law Enforcement
By John Hornick
Published: 02/27/2017


The devil’s playground

3D printing has the potential to transform the world by simplifying manufacturing, shortening supply chains, democratizing production, creating jobs, and customizing products to our needs. But 3D printing can also be the devil’s playground. 3D printing also has a dark side. Guns have already been 3D printed and criminals are using 3D printers to create new forms of crime.

The dark side today

Almost everyone has heard about the Texas law student, Cody Wilson, who made headlines in 2013 by 3D printing a plastic gun and posting the blueprints on the Internet. The blueprints were downloaded 100,000 times before the US government forced their removal from the server. But if it had not been Cody, it would have been someone else. In fact, the ZigZag plastic gun was 3D printed in Japan shortly after Wilson printed his and the maker went to jail.

In 2015, police in Oregon made arrests for the illegal possession an AR-15 assault rifle. Its lower receiver—the key to what makes it a weapon—was believed to have been 3D printed. A gun and 3D printing enthusiast called Derwood built the “Shuty” semi-automatic handgun partly from 3D printed parts. The weapon fired at least 800 rounds. More recently, a “Guy in a Garage,” as he calls himself, 3D printed the “Songbird,” which uses rubber bands for springs and a roofing nail for a firing pin, and fires multiple .357 rounds.

In August 2016, the TSA found a 3D printed revolver in carry-on luggage at the Reno-Tahoe Airport. The gun appears to have been detected because it was loaded with live rounds.

3D printed weapons need not be guns in the traditional sense, but may be just as dangerous. A plasma railgun was made by an anonymous Imgur user known as NSA_Listbot, who used a 3D printer and commonly available parts to make a handheld electromagnetic projectile launcher that fires rods made of Teflon/plasma, graphite, aluminum, and copper-coated tungsten at a speed of about 560 mph.

In a police raid in Manchester, England, police discovered 3D printed gun components with a 3D printer. In separate raids in Brisbane, Australia and its nearby Gold Coast, police found 3D printed gun parts and a fully functioning, loaded 3D printed gun.

Gun-printing criminals are still thinking inside the box. Although the plastic guns 3D printed to date are not very pretty, they still look like guns. But there is no reason why a 3D printed gun might not look like a shoe or a hairbrush or a soda bottle. The same may be true of bombs. As 3D printing industry analyst Alex Chausovsky said, “Think of master bombmakers in the Middle East making new designs that look like everyday products.” 3D printers have dark-side applications beyond guns. A Frenchman 3D printed fake facades for cash machines, which clone the data on users’ ATM cards. Criminals in Sydney, Australia, used 3D printers to make attachments for bank machines that skim bank card information from unsuspecting ATM users.

Organized crime is jumping on board. In coordinated raids against gangs in Malaga, Spain and the Bulgarian cities of Sofia, Burgas, and Silistra, police seized equipment used to 3D print sophisticated skimming equipment, including fake card slots for bank machines. A criminal who calls himself “Gripper” makes a skimmer by the same name, which he sells online. The Gripper is a good example of the dark power of combining the Internet and 3D printing. The portability of 3D printers means illegal items can be made in constantly relocated stealth factories, while the Internet can be used as the Illegal Information Superhighway.

Michigan State researchers have shown that 3D printed hands and fingerprints can be used to bypass security devices that rely on such one-of-a-kind signatures, or to fake evidence at a crime scene.


3D printing could lead to counterfeiting on steroids. You name it, and counterfeiters will be able to make it with 3D printers, or sell the blueprints. They will not be limited to Rolex watches and YSL handbags. Virtually any branded product may be counterfeited with 3D printers by printing it with or without the brand, or by printing a generic product with a band name on it. 3D printers will make it much easier for enterprising counterfeiters to enter the game.

The Bright Side

3D printing is also being used to help law enforcement, by recreating crime scenes and accidents, footprints and fingerprints, and for making detailed models for planning raids and for courtroom use.

University of Florida researchers and police are using 3D printing to help identify the victims in nine cold cases, 3D scanning and printing models of the victims’ skulls, which are then then fleshed out with clay. This same process was used by the Greene County Ohio Sheriff’s Office to try to identify the remains of a woman found in the woods near Dayton. After releasing images of the model, the victim was positively identified. The police investigation then shifted into high gear, resulting in suspects being identified, arrested, and charged a short time later.

Detectives and prosecutors in the UK used a combination of 3D scanning and 3D printing to obtain a conviction in the notorious “suitcase killing.”

Based on ongoing research, it will not be long before 3D printed fingerprints are used to unlock otherwise uncrackable smart phones.

Don’t blame the technology

As with many technologies, 3D printing can be misused, but not because the technology is inherently flawed. People are flawed. Although the size of the problem could be huge, this is only because the technology is so revolutionary and disruptive. Governments, law enforcement agencies, and homeland security must assess the risks from the dark side of 3D printing and plan accordingly.

John Hornick has more than 30 years of experience as a counselor and litigator at the Finnegan IP law firm, one of the largest IP firms in the world. As the founder of Finnegan’s 3D Printing Working Group, he advises clients about how 3D printing may affect their businesses. Hornick frequently speaks and writes on 3D printing and has been recognized as a thought leader in this space. He is the author of "3D Printing Will Rock the World". As the only IP attorney selected by the U.S. Comptroller General Forum on Additive Manufacturing, he is also a juror for the International Additive Manufacturing Award


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