Marysville Mail Thefts Highlight the Limitations of Current Measures, Not Just the Dangers of 3D Printing

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Mail theft is hardly a new phenomenon, but in Marysville, Washington, it’s getting an unsettling modern twist. Tens of thousands of residents in the community are now at risk after criminals stole master keys from a local post office and used 3D printing technology to produce duplicates. As mail thefts spike alarmingly in ZIP codes 98270 and 98271—areas that collectively encompass more than 73,000 people—the Marysville Police Department and U.S. Postal Service (USPS) are tackling the issue of how to offset this crime.

The incident highlights the broader challenge society faces as criminals continuously adapt to leverage emerging technologies. Mail theft has always been a disruptive crime, and the situation in Marysville represents an evolution of this threat. Victims can face not only the loss of tangible items but also the exposure of sensitive personal information, leading to other crimes, like potential fraud and identity theft. In Marysville, however, the situation has worsened. Authorities report that the stolen master keys were used to create 3D printed copies, giving the thieves unrestricted access to group mailboxes in housing developments across the town and even collection boxes.

USPS collection box. Image courtesy of USPS.

However, this isn’t quite an isolated incident. In 2016, thieves used 3D printers to manufacture copies of high-security cargo seals, which they then applied to already-emptied containers to avoid immediate detection. A few years later, computer-aided design (CAD) files for Transportation Security Administration (TSA) master keys were posted online, allowing anyone with a 3D printer to unlock TSA-approved luggage locks. While national security companies in the UK began warning in 2020 that a simple photograph of a set of keys could allow hackers to make a functional 3D printed replica, law enforcement hasn’t warned citizens about this risk any further.

In this particular case, local police have already issued multiple alerts on social media platforms, emphasizing the surge in mail theft incidents. Yet, despite their efforts, no recent arrests have been linked to the series of thefts, and it remains unknown how many people are involved or whether there are specific “hot spots” where mail theft is more prevalent. The Postal Inspector has attempted to halt the crime by installing “key grabbers” in some boxes. These devices trap the key, preventing it from being extracted after being inserted—a measure that, according to the USPS, is currently the “only” course of action they can take.

This last point highlights an even more concerning aspect of this situation: the limitations of existing preventive measures. 3D printing aside, if trapping keys is the only layer of defense the Postal Service can offer, it raises the question of how effectively this will deter thieves, who have already shown they can use technology to their advantage.

The issue here extends beyond 3D printing or any specific technology that can clone keys. The root problem lies in a security system that permits access via master keys, which can be stolen, copied, or otherwise breached. Perhaps the focus should shift from the technologies criminals use to examining the security systems’ vulnerabilities.

Indeed, there must be alternatives to the traditional master key system, such as biometric locks, blockchain-based tracking of key usage, or other multi-factor authentication methods that could effectively neutralize the threat of key duplication—no matter the technology used. After all, 3D printing is just a tool. Criminals have used, and will continue to use, other methods to clone keys and compromise locks. The question, therefore, is not how to stop the technology but how to develop better security measures to stay one step ahead.

Perhaps Marysville serves as a wake-up call for society at large. While technology makes our lives better in many ways, it can also create new problems. So, the question now is not if we should update our understanding of security but how quickly we can do it. Keeping up with these changes is essential for places like Marysville and other communities facing similar issues.

In the meantime, the Marysville Police Department urges anyone who notices suspicious activity around mailboxes to report it immediately by calling 911.

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