A Dutch criminal gang used 3D printers to conceal drugs that they shipped by post.

That 3D printing could be used for crime was already on many people’s minds years ago. Law enforcement agencies have been learning about 3D printing for the past few decades in order to discover how it can be used for crime. Whereas the popular media has focused on 3D printing guns, actual criminality with 3D printing is being done in a different way. 3D printed guns are a bit of a self-invented self-fulfilling prophecy by the media whereby enough attention will result in money and supporters being directed to increase the effort of 3D printing guns. 3D printing guns will only be an actual thing to worry about if the media has generated enough interest in it for it to be developed further. Even then there are plenty of other tools with which one could manufacture guns. On the other hand, 3D printing is being used worldwide by criminals to aid in their crimes. The way through which this is being done is to hide things.

An ATM card skimmer made in 2014.

3D printing as a technology is ideally suited to making containers, housings, and parts that contain hidden compartments. With finishing techniques and a wide variety of materials, 3D printing has for a number of years been used by people attempting to make credit card and ATM card skimmer devices. These devices will be added to the credit card terminal or ATM machine to skim numbers. They can also be added to areas near or on the ATM to obscure cameras or other devices meant to register a person’s pin code. The 3D printing of skimmers and ancillary devices has been going on since at least 2010. There have been whispers that even before this time, in the nineties espionage and counterintelligence agencies had been making extensive use of 3D printing in listening devices and other hidden tools of their trade. With the advent of desktop 3D printers, 3D printing criminality seems to have expanded somewhat in scope. Many in the industry are very relieved, however, that so far 3D printing’s use in crime is very limited.

Indeed for many of the applications, we are seeing today that a talented model maker or ceramics artist working by hand could do a better job than printers generally could. Some criminals will turn to new technologies in a fundamental way, however. In what is a quintessentially modern crime if there ever was one, a Dutch gang has been caught using 3D printers to conceal drugs that they sold on the Dark Web.

The Dark Web is a part of the Internet that is not meant to be found and explored by everyone. Kept hidden and usually only accessed via anonymization services, it serves as a kind of Mos Eisley Cantina where criminals can find one another. Lots happens on the Dark Web but the major money makers are essentially eBays for crime. Buyers of drugs, sellers of credit cards and all sorts of other contraband can trade on dark websites such as Hansa Market and Silkroad. By casually connecting criminals from all over the world these eBays for crime can really bring together criminals that would never find each other normally. One group active on Hansa Market and other sites called itself DougHeffernan.

This is, of course, hysterical because Doug Heffernan was the name of the main character on the US sitcom King of Queens. Also in the show the Doug Heffernan character was a delivery driver for a parcel service. It’s quite funny as names go if you’re in the international drug trade via parcel delivery. The DougHeffernan group was active on several Darknet sites. They traded MDMA, cocaine and LSD online. The group consisted of four members who were arrested in Werkendam. They had an office and distribution area where they reportedly shipped drugs to thousands of customers. The Dutch police called the criminals “innovative.” As well as money and drugs, one firearm and Bitcoin was also confiscated. It is not known how much Bitcoin the gang had amassed at this point. The group would sell drugs via Hansa Market and other sites and then ship them from their offices in the Netherlands.

The group would then use 3D printing to make fake inkjet cartridges, boxes, containers to hold their drugs. By using 3D printed boxes including makeup boxes and game cartridges the drugs could be concealed and delivered to their customers. The DougHeffernan group was reportedly one of the largest sellers of cocaine on the Hansa Market. The Hansa Market itself was taken over by the Dutch Police who ran the website for a time in order to catch more criminals. This story on Wired shows you how police took over the market.  Subsequently, Dutch police have been working with partners globally to round up more criminals.

This is, of course, a worrying development. I’ve had many conversations with people in our community where we worry about our beloved technology being used in ways like these. Let’s point out that 3D printing inkjet cartridges and containers does not add anything new to a criminal’s arsenal. The person could already make these kinds of things themselves by various means by hand. 3D printing just makes it more cost effective to do so. Will 3D printing continue to be used by criminals? Certainly. As a concealment technology, 3D printing shows a lot of promise. At the same time, using 3D printing to hide drugs does not in fact bypass drug sniffer dogs nor does it defeat X-ray devices or other ways of combatting this kind of crime. By 3D printing a good false bottom in an inkjet cartridge the DougHeffernan group simply helped itself pass some visual inspections of packages. As our technology spreads and becomes more available it will be used for more harm. On the whole 3D printing is an incredible boon to humanity in medicine, industry and in making the future more efficient. We will have to get used to more criminal uses for our technology, however.

At this link you can find the story in Dutch and also a video showing you the drugs and how they were packaged.

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