Chongqing’s 3-D Printing Companies Asked to Register With Police
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2017-09-12 10:44:47

To protect public safety, companies involved in 3-D printing in Chongqing, one of China’s largest cities, will have to register with police.

Authorities began the citywide registration of such companies on Monday, state news agency Xinhua reported. The objective is to prevent the public from getting their hands on dangerous and illegal products made by 3-D printing technology, and to control the production and sales of digital blueprints for such items, police in the southwestern city announced Thursday on Toutiao, a news app.

By stacking layers of malleable material, 3-D printers can create objects of nearly any shape. The technology has many innovative applications in the fields of architecture, aviation, health care, and others, but it can also be used to recreate items protected by copyright, or even weapons.

In 2013, a nonprofit group in Texas designed and printed a functioning gun, and earlier this year, a British cybersecurity expert managed to fool facial recognition systems with a 3-D-printed mask.

Companies involved in 3-D printing will have to register as a “special industry,” the Thursday announcement said. The Ministry of Public Security created this designation in 1985 with the intention of applying it to sectors where illegal and criminal activities are more prevalent. Currently, other special industries include hotels, restaurants, bathhouses and metal recycling.

As part of the registration process, people in charge of the companies, as well as any employees with access to 3-D printing equipment and blueprints, should provide their personal information. Companies should also divulge information about their security measures, the equipment and raw materials they use, and more.

The announcement — part of a series called “Welcome the 19th Party Congress: Loyally Defend Safety” — said that the move was a trial and a nationwide first.

Professor Zhang Lichao, a 3-D printing expert at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, central China, told Sixth Tone that the increasing quality, diminishing costs, and improving ease of use of 3-D printing mean the technology could easier lead to security problems.

Zhang explained that currently, only very large and costly printers can produce a truly lethal gun, and that such machines are mostly owned by companies, universities, and research centers, all of which keep procurement records, Zhang added. “The current oversight is quite good,” he said.

But with technological developments, that might change. Downloading blueprints is easy, Zhang said, and such digital data will be difficult to control completely, even if some printers are programmed to automatically recognize illegal designs. “If part of the information is erased, or if the core components are printed separately,” he said, “the person who operates the printer might not realize they’re printing a gun.”

Naomi Wu, a tech advocate based in Shenzhen, southern China, told Sixth Tone that she thought 3-D printing doesn’t pose any danger, and that improvised weapons made from metal are a far greater hazard. “People who think 3-D printed guns are a credible [security threat] likely don't have a technical background and are unaware that nearly any technology can be weaponized if desired,” Wu said.

In their announcement, the Chongqing police said they would keep an eye on developments in the industry and “continuously improve our supervision measures.”

This article has been updated to include Naomi Wu’s comments.

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: A visitor looks at a 3-D printer on display at the China International Technology Fair in Shanghai, May 8, 2013. Xiao Xin/VCG)