Artificial Intelligence and Investigations of Illegal 3D Printed Weapons

September 2022

In many ways, firearms created with 3D printers are the perfect weapons for criminals, especially if they reside in countries with strict gun laws. These 3D printed guns have no registration, no serial numbers, and no documentation in the traditional sense. Since they are created one small layer of filament at a time, in the 3D printer of the creator, they cannot be traced in the same way that traditionally manufactured firearms are kept track of. Criminals can download a free file and make most of the parts for their weapons in the secrecy of their own homes. While most designs require a few metal pieces (barrels, pins, springs) that may need to be purchases and integrated with the build, those individual parts may be legal, accessible, and inexpensive.  As Printing techniques continue to improve and with other home manufacturing capabilities, even once only purchasable components (barrels, pins, springs) can now be printed without trace. The availability and virtual untraceable nature of these guns is quickly making them a go-to weapon among criminals in countries like Germany, Spain, and the U.K. In fact, the Spanish police uncovered an entire illegal 3D printed weapons workshop in the Canary Islands in 2021. The attack at a Synagogue in Germany with a 3D printed firearm is not likely to be the last use of these elusive and deadly instruments.

Fortunately, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to be the best chance that law enforcement has to investigate, prosecute, and even prevent and deter, the use of 3D printed guns. While these guns are not registered in the way that traditionally manufactured firearms are, they are not entirely untraceable. With the right investigative analytics systems, the chances of tracking these weapons increases dramatically.


Data Analysis for Investigating 3D Printed Firearms

Law enforcement professionals in the U.K. report that downloading and creating these firearms is a growing trend on social media. The distribution of the plans for these guns is commonly carried out on social media channels that have thousands of followers. Most of the sources of these plans come from “grass roots” organizations and individuals, making them much more difficult to track down. In many cases, the gun downloads are provided for free by extremist groups who encourage members to conduct acts of violence in pursuit of their ideological aims.

Fortunately, law enforcement efforts can be exponentially bolstered analytical tools to process data from a range of databases and social media platforms, including platforms in the “deep web” and “dark web.” This can be done in a few different ways:

  • Linguistic analysis can be conducted in 100 different languages, considering current trends in slang and euphemisms, to flag keywords and phrases referencing 3D printed guns. The AI systems can analyze the online chatter through algorithms that note mention of hundreds of different words or phrases that indicate connection to these activities, going on to establish potential social connections, intended uses and targets, sources of designs, and locations.


  • Image analysis be an extremely valuable tool. Investigative software can process massive amounts of data as it sorts through images to identify possible representations of 3D printed firearms as photos of completed guns, designs, specs, and even the coding to make these weapons. It can also match evidence of 3D printed weapons with facial recognition capabilities to pair the activity with specific individuals, locations, vehicles, and other data that is pertinent to the investigation.


  • Algorithms can also be created to account for the purchase of the parts that are not typically 3D printed, including online purchase of pins, springs, and barrels for the guns that are being printed. It can also be applied to the purchase of the 3D printers themselves. With the right data parameters, these purchases can provide further evidence for investigators.


And this is just a brief glimpse at the many strategies in identifying the people who are designing and distributing designs for 3D printed weapons, and those who are downloading and manufacturing these firearms for criminal activities. As criminals continue to apply various technologies that they access and share through online platforms, AI is likely to become an absolute necessity for law enforcement organizations across the world.


Autor: Chris Johnson for Voyager Labs

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