According to a new study by the University at Buffalo (UB), smartphones are an ideal tool to steal sensitive data from 3D printers.
“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 Wenyao Xu, assistant professor of UB’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and the study’s lead author.
Not a cyberattack
Unlike most security hacks, the researchers did not simulate a cyberattack. 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 the 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 20 centimetres 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 Kui Ren, professor of UB’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and a 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. The remaining data came from acoustic waves.
The results show that that anyone with a smartphone – from a disgruntled employee to an industrial spy – could 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 Chi Zhou, assistant professor of UB’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, another co-author of the study.
Making 3D printers more secure
The researchers have suggested several ways to make 3D printing more secure. The simplest deterrent from such an attack is distance. The ability to obtain accurate data for simple objects diminished to 87 per cent at 30 centimetres, and 66 per cent at 40 centimetres, according to the study.
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, such as acoustic and electromagnetic shields.