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Hackers target government, defense 3-D printers

Hackers target government, defense 3-D printers
photo courtesy of shutterstock

Espionage and sabotage are two things every government both loves and fears. Getting insight into potential enemies is critical and being able to slow them down without military involvement is a big plus. Having it happen to you, though, isn't so good.

Technology and the Internet make both of those incredibly easy these days. On the espionage side, several U.S. defense contractors have had data breaches where hackers stole valuable plans - including plans for the F-35 fighter from Lockheed.

On the sabotage side, the best example is the Stuxnet virus that crippled Iran's nuclear enrichment program for a while by sabotaging its centrifuges in subtle ways. Not only was it effective, it was impossible to say for sure what countries created the virus, although the U.S. and Israel are the logical choices.

Of course, that works both ways. I've warned you about the possibility for sabotage in public utilities like the U.S. power grid. And now thanks to 3-D printing, there's a new angle saboteurs can take.

Before I talk about the threat, let's quickly review 3-D printing. This technology uses plastic, metal and other materials to print 3-D objects - click here for a full explanation.

Manufacturers are starting to use it for creating fast prototypes, printing custom parts, cars or - in the FBI's case - replicating bombs. From the Army to the International Space Station, 3-D printers give anyone the flexibility to print what they need where and when they need it.

That's great, but it does leave an opening for hackers. A hacker who breaks into a 3-D printer can steal the files it's printing. That means top-secret parts are easy to snag and even print for yourself.

A hacker who breaks into a unit printing parts for military vehicles could tweak the code to make the parts fail more quickly in the field. Like Stuxnet, the problem wouldn't show up until damage had already been done.

In extreme cases, the hackers could cause the printers to damage or destroy themselves. On some printers using volatile materials, they could even turn the printer into a bomb.

Last year at Powederpart, a 3-D metal printer leaked metal dust and exploded, injuring an employee. The conditions of the explosion wouldn't be too hard for a hacker to replicate.

Obviously, this is still a future concern, but with the rate 3-D printing is advancing, it won't be theory for long. It's time to start thinking about how hackers can take advantage of technology before it arrives, not after the damage is done.

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