From Our Partners – Wiki Weapons & War: The Implications of 3D Printing on National Security
Posted: September 15, 2016 at 1:41 pm, Last Updated: September 16, 2016 at 9:05 am
Since the first successful test of Defense Distributed’s three-dimensional (3D) printed ‘Liberator’ pistol in 2013, business and technology magazines and websites have begun to publish articles on 3D-printed ‘wiki weapons.’ However, many of these articles seem to overlook an important question: What are the potential implications of 3D printing on domestic security systems worldwide? This paper argues that such weapons will pose significant challenges to domestic security systems worldwide in the near future and will conclude with a review of proposed and recommended policies that attempt to control the proliferation of wiki weapons and their blueprints.
3D Printing for Good and Ill
Advancements in 3D printing technologies continue to amaze. Since stereolithography was first patented by Chuck Hull less than three decades ago, we have witnessed the 3D printing of objects smaller than an ant’s forehead, functional power tools the size of a fingernail, a bioprint of Vincent van Gogh’s ear, a functional lawn mower, a working custom car, and a five-story office building. NASA has even 3D printed an access panel for the International Space Station while in space. Still, the most controversial object ever 3D printed was designed and produced by a self-proclaimed ‘crypto-anarchist’ from Little Rock, Arkansas.
On May 5, 2013, Defense Distributed—a non-profit corporation founded by Ben Denio and Cody Wilson and based in Austin, Texas—posted a video of Wilson successfully test-firing the world’s first fully functional 3D-printed firearm, a single-shot .380 calibre pistol referred to as the “Liberator.” The previous summer, Defense Distributed uploaded a video asking for $20,000 to build its prototype design of what Wilson called the world’s first “wiki weapon”—described as a “personal defence system”—and to release its “digital file to be freely distributed across the internet.” In his ‘Wiki Weapon’ video, Wilson described the project as more of a political statement than innocent scientific experimentation. When the blueprints were posted a year later, they revealed that the weapon consisted of only sixteen parts, fifteen of which were 3D printed. The only part that was not 3D printed was a common hardware store nail that was used as the firing pin.
Five days after the Liberator’s blueprints were uploaded, Wilson received a letter from the US State Department requesting him to remove, inter alia, the Liberator CAD files because it was unclear if their dissemination complied with the Export Control Act. Defense Distributed complied with the request and removed the Liberator CAD files, but this did not deter others from attempting to design 3D-printed firearms of their own. Since the May 2013 test, other wiki weapons have appeared from the US, Canada, and Japan, including working models of a .22 calibre single-shot weapon, a .22 calibre derringer revolver, a .22 calibre long rifle (LR) semi-automatic firearm, a 3D-metal-printed M1911 semi-automatic pistol, and a .38 calibre revolver. The genie of 3D-printed weapons, it seems, is now out of the bottle.
In 2014, a study that considered the security implications of 3D-printed weapons concluded that “in general, at the moment 3D printing does not create any novel security concerns,” reasoning that “weapons, including a huge portion of unlicensed ones, are quite abundant worldwide and pose a more problematic security challenge than any printed gun out of plastic.” While the study is correct that traditional small arms continue to be more problematic to security than 3D-printed weapons, it is wrong in concluding that 3D-printed weapons do not represent “any novel security concerns.”
In the first two days after the Liberator’s blueprints were posted on the internet, they were downloaded over 100,000 times. At time of writing, the files are still readily available for free on file-sharing websites. Journalists, in particular, have been interested in the Liberator’s functionality and have downloaded its open-source CAD files to test the limits of both the weapon itself and the security systems designed to detect its traditionally-manufactured counterparts. Shortly after the designs appeared on the internet, reporters from the UK’s Daily Mail and Israel’s Channel 10 were able to smuggle the weapon onto a Eurostar train and inside the Israeli Knesset, respectively, undetected. While it could be argued that the single-shot nature of the Liberator “reduces the risk that it could be used for terrorist and criminal purposes” and makes it more likely that it will be viewed as a “novel” item for weapons collectors and enthusiasts, this neglects the fact that a single shot is all that is needed for an assassination attempt. This is all the more important considering the Channel 10 reporters were able to get within metres of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Further, 3D-printed weapons are being continuously updated and improved. In November 2014, Michael Crumling, a 25-year-old machinist from York, Pennsylvania, produced a 3D-printed firearm capable of firing 3D-printed bullets. Although this technology is still in its infancy, it is likely to improve over time just like most wiki weapons before it.
Wiki weapons may also have serious implications for struggles against armed militias and insurgents. Although it might be argued that 3D-printed parts for improvised explosive devices would be too “impractical” in a conflict zone, it is worth remembering that 2,550 American service members were killed from comparable “impractical” IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, if a similar conflict were to occur in the future, not only could 3D-printed IED components contribute to more casualties due to their reduced detectability, but the fact that individuals could produce functional parts for a landmine or IED simply by downloading a CAD file might also lead to an increase in their deployment. Furthermore, it could become problematic if domestic violent extremists were to begin to print these less detectable landmines or IEDs and then attempt to smuggle them into government buildings or prisons or deploy them in public places such as beaches, shopping centres, or schools.
Another reason why armed militias, insurgents, or terrorists might defer to wiki weapons is to mitigate risk. These actors may view 3D-printed weapons as a lesser but more readily available and secure alternative to procuring weapons off the street where they are vulnerable to law enforcement authorities seeking to apprehend them or their dealer.
Finally, costs may ultimately incentivize some to make the switch to wiki weapons. At present, the prices of new 3D printers range from $350 to $6,500 depending on sophistication. Although 3D printing may still be too expensive for individuals in some areas, the costs associated with 3D printing will diminish over time. Further, 3D printers can be used to print more (fully functional) 3D printers. The Replicating Rapid-prototyper (RepRap) is a self-replicating 3D printer with an open-source license designed for the express purpose of making 3D printers “accessible to small communities in the developing world as well as individuals in the developed world.” It is unknown if a RepRap has ever been used to print a wiki weapon, although, in November 2013, a group at Michigan Technological University was able to build a 3D metal printer—the same type of printer used by Solid Concepts to produce their 3D printed M1911—currently priced at hundreds of thousands of dollars with materials that cost less than $1,500. Thus, if these trends continue, the decreasing costs of 3D printing could lead to a proliferation of untraceable small arms that are privately mass produced by armed militias, assassins, insurgents, lone actors, or terrorists themselves.
What should be done to address the threats that wiki weapons pose to domestic security systems? One recommendation is to rely on the 3D-printing community to develop a code of conduct “to exercise self-restraint and not publish blueprints of weapons or components.” Although this strategy might make it more difficult for individuals to locate wiki weapon CAD files on the internet, it would not prevent a determined user from designing a gun using a CAD program on his own. It also seems unlikely that plastics used to produce wiki weapons could or should be regulated due to their widespread availability and dual-use natures. Polymer, for instance, comprises many products that one uses on a daily basis—such as showerheads or automobile parts—and can be found in almost any factory that does injection moulding. Thus, it would be economically and politically infeasible to monitor and verify the use of such materials in every state.
Another possible solution is to change the coding of a 3D printer to make it unable to print components for wiki weapons. Similar approaches have never allowed the gaming, music, or film industries to control the illegal copying, modifying, and re-distribution of their products, so there is no reason to believe that such approaches would be any more effective for 3D printers. Hackers would still find ways to bypass or ‘crack’ the internal coding of 3D printers in order to print what they want. The inevitable evolution of wiki weapon technology would also mean that 3D printers would have to constantly be updated to know what not to print, which would paradoxically make obsolete and legacy 3D printers—which are often less expensive than ‘state of the art’ systems—more effective tools for nefarious actors. Furthermore, the ‘patch and update’ approach would ignore the possibility that the blueprints for 3D-printed 3D printers, like the RepRap, could be designed or modified for the express purpose of evading such patches and updates. Therefore, it appears as though the most practical and expedient solution for the international community at present is to begin training security and screening personnel to be vigilant for wiki weapons that are not shaped like traditional firearms or have toy-like appearances.
3D-printed ‘wiki weapons’ will likely pose significant challenges to domestic security systems worldwide in the near future. In response to these new challenges, states should recognize and address the dangers of wiki weapons by raising awareness with domestic security personnel and impose harsh penalties on those who attempt to host or download wiki weapon CAD files that are produced as freeware. Obviously, the effectiveness of these measures will largely be dependent upon the outcomes of domestic legal and political battles in influential states like the US, but there is no harm in educating security officials, politicians, and lawmakers about the dangers of wiki weapons now before these weapons become common.
The author would like to give special thanks for the assistance of Stephanie Carvin, without which this paper would not have been possible.
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