We’ve been talking about 3D printing for quite some time now. It is an amazing technology that is shaping the world around us and doing so at an amazing pace. We’ve seen it being used in medical field and manufacturing processes. However, a team of researchers from the University of California, Irvine has made a critical discovery. The team has demonstrated that the sound from the 3D printer can be used for ascertaining what is being 3D printed. This raises security concerns.
The team placed a smartphone next to a 3D printer and the team was able to record the acoustic signals that revealed information pertaining to the device’s nozzle movement and the information is quite precise. This set of information can be utilized for reverse engineering the object that has been printed and thus renders the stealing of intellectual property as a possible outcome.
Mohammad Al Faruque, director of UCI’s Advanced Integrated Cyber-Physical Systems Lab said, “In many manufacturing plants, people who work on a shift basis don’t get monitored for their smartphones, for example. If process and product information is stolen during the prototyping phases, companies stand to incur large financial losses. There’s no way to protect these systems from such an attack today, but possibly there will be in the future.”
3D printing systems rely on digital information to operate and carry out the conversion of this digital information that is presented as embedded into the source code for building layer upon layer of material until the 3D printing process is complete. The source file is known as G-code and can be protected by means of encryption. However, once the 3D printing process starts, the printer creates sounds that can reveal what’s hidden in the source code.
The team made this discovery when they were busy studying the correlation between the energy flows and the information. We all have heard about the conservation of energy law and that law is what’s causing this. Al Faruque said, “According to the fundamental laws of physics, energy is not consumed; it’s converted from one form to another – electromagnetic to kinetic, for example. Some forms of energy are translated in meaningful and useful ways; others become emissions, which may unintentionally disclose secret information.”
As soon as the team determined that sounds being emitted by the 3D printer are revealing key elements of the 3D printing source code, it worked on improving the accuracy and subsequently was able to achieve an accuracy of about 90% during implementation of this technique. As a result they were able to duplicate a key-shaped item that was being 3D printed.
Al Faruque said, “Initially, we weren’t interested in the security angle but we realized we were onto something, and we’re seeing interest from other departments at UCI and from various US government agencies.”
A possible way to tackle this issue from manufacturers’ end would be to mask these culprit acoustic signals that are being emitted by 3D printer by using white noise. This way ‘intentional acoustic randomness’ can be introduced into the mix and thus disrupt the information flow system that might be used for hacking the design. At the very least, the companies should ban smartphones usage in the vicinity of 3D printers to ensure safeguarding of intellectual property.