Invasion of Privacy & Tracking via 3D Printed Watermarks May Be Real Threats


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Many 3D printing enthusiasts are probably already harkening back to the beginning of 3D printing, when it was still a technological wild frontier, virtually lawless, and wildly exciting due to the infinite options for innovation via layered fabrication. All too soon, major concerns cropped up within the 3D printing industry, centered around issues like the ability to make guns or fabricate blatant criminal devices, such as ATM skimmers.

Now, looking past what threats 3D printing may cause to society, researchers are concerned with the opposite: what types of vulnerability are users open to? Exploring security breaches stemming from watermarks, Dr. Annika Jones of Durham University and Dr. James Griffin of the University of Exeter have reached out to other researchers in China for more information about 3D printing privacy issues.

A watermark is generally a simple, almost transparent logo or symbol meant to identify a maker. You may be familiar with these as innocuous symbols, however, both Jones and Griffin have raised concerns that they may now open up 3D printed objects to invasions of privacy. The researchers suggest that any Internet connected device capable of detecting a watermark, such as cameras, laptops or mobile phones, could be used to gain information from watermarks embedded in 3D prints, including the origins of the 3D printed object or how they may have been used.

The researchers have been on a mission to bring greater awareness to governments and businesses engaged in 3D printing regarding intellectual property rights. Currently, they hope to make an impact with the following:

  • Changes to treaties on copyright laws
  • Changes in international human rights law
  • New voluntary code of conduct
  • Greater privacy protection
  • Regulatory body to provide guidance and oversight

Jones and Griffin conducted 30 comprehensive interviews with individuals representing 3D printing companies in China. Upon collecting data, the researchers came to believe that the Internet of Things may put consumers at risk for unwanted surveillance, along with instances where watermarking is being transferred from one file format to another, and big data may be able to monitor 3D printed objects.

“3D printing will have a profound impact upon our notions of social privacy,” said Griffin. “This has the potential to be considerably more invasive than the Internet of Things. Every physical product that is 3D printed has the potential to be tracked in a way that has never occurred before.

“In the future, as 3D printing becomes more commonplace, there will be the potential for strangers to trace, track and observe objects, which can reveal an incredible amount of information about the users of such content.”

3D printed items, 4D printed items, and those created for augmented and virtual reality may be in jeopardy—and bioprinted structures are no exception either. The interviews revealed that the Chinese representatives did indeed see valid security issues and “sensitivities,” with tracking of 3D printed parts to be considered an obvious infringement.

The researchers suggest that international human rights law should be interpreted in such a way as to tackle watermarking in 3D printed items. Additionally, the believe a voluntary code of conduct, meant to ensure that watermarks are clearly identified on 3D files and objects, should be adopted, with software developed to protect private information embedded watermarks.

The researchers also pointed out that, while regulation is needed, currently the Chinese business operators take the appropriate measures on their own regarding security. Jones and Griffin do not see that as a good system for the future, however, as organized regulatory bodies could be formed to include the UK Copyright Hub, National Copyright Administration of China, the UK Intellectual Property Office, the Copyright Tribunal, or Information Commissioners Office.

“Digital watermarking and 3D printed products present a future where objects can be searched for with nothing more than the equivalent of a Google search word,” said Griffin. “3D printing and digital watermarking specifically has not been considered by any government or regulatory body, nor has there been any regulatory research carried out on the matter.

“At the same time, it is clear that there is a demand within the industry for further guidance as to how to ensure that personal data, and individual privacy, is protected as the industry evolves.”

[Source / Images: Science and Technology]

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