Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Images/Queen Nefertiti, at Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection in the Neues Museum Berlin
In February, two artists, Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles – claimed to have scanned the bust of Nefertiti in a German history museum using a handheld Kinect Sensor. They then posted the digital files online.
Their goal, they said, was to free the statue from its imprisonment inside the walls of Berlin’s Neues Museum by enabling anyone with access to a 3D printer to make their own near-perfect replica – a Nefertiti for all.
Al-Badri and Nelles saw their caper as an act of cultural liberation. It was a gesture against what they believe to be a legacy of colonial theft and appropriation, in which the goods of one nation or culture – in this case, Egypt – ended up in the museums and storerooms of another.
But the stunt illustrated another possibility: the indirect heist. Instead of stealing the thing itself, you can just pilfer the set of parameters – the metadata – that define it.
Why steal the actual bust of Nefertiti when you can instead easily nab the measurements to fabricate a new one? You would not have the original but you would have the peculiar wealth that comes with possessing a potentially infinite number of exact copies.
Nora Al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles.
Al-Badri and Nelles were not the first to release scans of unique artwork into the world. For some time Cosmo Wenman has beenhoused in the British Museum – such as , one of the Parthenon sculptures. Like Al-Badri and Nelles, Wenman sees what he does as setting free the world’s art. He also online.
Of course, metadata has always been a target. Theis filled with such tales. Stealing the plans for a nuclear reactor, a classified weapon, or a new computer chip have long been lucrative pursuits. What is intriguing about this new phase in the history of digital larceny is that meta-thievery is easier than ever.
For example, it turns out that just. Accurate audio recordings made during the 3D-printing process can be used to reverse-engineer the objects being printed, allowing 3D-printed objects to be reproduced elsewhere based on the stolen acoustic metadata.
In this scenario, all that’s needed for a sophisticated theft of intellectual property is a smartphone left near a 3D-printer to record the sound it makes. The acoustic signature carries enough information about the precise movements of the printer’s nozzle. The recording can then be used to reverse engineer the object being printed and recreate it elsewhere. Steal the metadata, and you steal the object.
The researcher behind this discovery, Mohammad Al Faruque, director of the advanced integrated cyber-physical systems lab at UC Irvine later suggested that one way to counteract this kind of IP theft would be to introduce random noise into the printing facility. Any objects reverse-engineered from the resulting, imprecise sound data would be inaccurate. Acting as a kind of acoustic watermark, this would help to mask the sound of the printer, rendering any audio recordings useless.
Hidden within Al Faruque’s observation is a key to how to guard against such heists in the first place. Preventing accurate audio recordings, or thwarting the production of laser scans, will require rethinking the basic tenants of physical security. Rather than only preclude direct human contact with a valuable object, for example, museums and factories might also invest in new forms of defence, such as acoustic cloaking, thermal camouflage, and even reflective surfaces used for their disruptive effects against laser scanning equipment.
The security systems of the future will be aimed at scrambling an object’s metadata, deliberately introducing glitches, missteps, and errors into any attempted reproduction. If you can dazzle the devices that are being used to record or scan a given object, then you can effectively protect that object from illicit duplication.
Of course, as the work of Wenman, Al-Badri and Nelles so provocatively suggests, there is good reason to pause before sealing our cultural artefacts behind otherwise invisible walls of white noise or laser-jamming effects. But for those of us with new products to hide or valuable factories to run, the challenge of true security just got a lot stranger.
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