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Tech Terror: Understanding the Security Risks Posed by 3D Printed Firearms

By December 21, 2015 No Comments

The technological age we live in has been witness to astonishing advancements that would have never been thought possible by previous generations. Not only has technological advancement helped simplify our lives, connect communities, and improve our productivity, it has been used to treat and cure illness, improve the lives of the impoverished, and mitigate security threats. Advancements in technology have undoubtedly altered our lives for the better. However, it must be noted that much like every major ‘generation defining’ achievement, negative variables are inevitable.

The purpose of this article is to assess the security risks posed by emerging technologies. Specifically, this article will explore new and emerging technology of 3D printers, and assess the security risks they pose. This article will attempt to highlight current and future concerns posed by 3D printers, and determine how civil society can be protected from technological misuse through education and government regulation. Additionally, this article will assess the use of Unmanned Ariel Vehicle (UAV) technology compared to how unregulated emerging technology can pose a significant threat to security, and explore the similarities between the emergence of UAV technology in the early 21st century, and the current emergence of 3D printed small arms and light weapons. Although advancements in technology are integral to the success and prosperity of individuals, governments, workplaces, communities, and the global collective, unregulated production and use of some advanced technologies can pose security risks that have the potential to cause significant and wide-scale damage.

3D printing, also known as ‘additive manufacturing’ is a technological system capable of printing functional components and objects from scratch.[1] 3D printers use a range of laser based techniques to build objects layer by layer, and have a wide array of advantages over traditional manufacturing techniques, which can be wasteful of the raw materials required to produce an object.[2] 3D printing uses only what is needed to develop a complete product. Productivity and resourcefulness is just a small advantage of 3D printing. The most compelling aspect of the technology is its ability to produce just about anything imaginable. According to Dr. Richard Hague, “[Additive manufacturing] frees you from the constraints of traditional manufacturing processes. It changes the kind of products you can make and the way you design things. You can make very very complicated geometries. It’s almost as close to Nirvana as you’re ever going to get”.[3] Moreover, the safety and security concerns associated with 3D printers is not a product of the immense productivity and resourcefulness that comes with the technology, it’s directly correlated to the endless manufacturing possibilities available to individuals with access to the technology.

It has become evident in recent years that the revolutionary technology has a dark side. Much like most technological advancements, 3D printers have the potential to produce components and finished products that can be extremely harmful to human life and an adverse risk to established security structures worldwide. In particular, one of the more well-known threats 3D printers pose is their ability to produce undetectable and untraceable firearms and firearm components.

3D printers are still relatively rare pieces of equipment to come across on a day-to-day basis. The technology at the moment is relatively new, and too costly to warrant individual ownership by the masses. However, further growth is expected by analysts, as expiring patents and the dropping price of ‘low-end’ 3D printers has resulted in a projected increase in the production and sale of 3D printers.[4]

3D printers with an industrial capacity typically range in cost between $50,000 USD -$500,000 USD[5], making their misuse relatively less likely, but not impossible. In recent years, ‘low-end’ 3D printers, capable of producing firearms and firearms components, have dropped in price from $20,000 USD to $1,000 USD or less.[6] According to N.R Jenzen-Jones of the Small Arms Survey, there is a projected growth increase of roughly 20% per year in the additive manufacturing industry, which would make the industry worth roughly $10.8 billion USD by 2021.[7] If these projections are correct, 3D printers could become a common electronic device used in offices, factories and even homes in the next decade. The risk posed by these devices comes from the rapid development and popularity of the device, combined with the owners’ ability to create whatever they desire, including firearms, and firearm components made from materials that are undetectable by modern security scanners, like the ones commonly used at airports.

3D printers can produce objects made up of numerous materials; however, the concern lies in their ability to produce weapons using materials that are undetectable. The weapons themselves are generally not as durable, accurate, or powerful as traditionally manufactured firearms made of metal, however, one cannot simply print a traditional firearm in the comfort of their own home in a matter of hours. As the technology improves, and advanced blueprints are developed, 3D printed firearms have the potential to rival traditional firearms in the not-too-distant future. In 2013, a company called Defense Distributed raised enough money to lease a 3D printer in the United States, and eventually develop a plastic 30-round magazine for an AR-15 rifle, and an AR-15 receiver capable of firing more than 600 rounds.[8] In September 2015, the same controversial company successfully test fired the first firearm created entirely by a 3D printer.[9] The company plans to distribute the blueprints necessary for the production of this firearm online, which will give anyone with access to a 3D printer the ability to produce an untraceable, undetectable firearm.[10]

In 1988, U.S. President, Ronald Reagan signed into law the Undetectable Firearms Act, which was renewed by President Barack Obama in 2013.[11] The law was created to make illegal the ‘manufacture, import, sale, shipment, delivery, possession, transfer, or ownership’[12] of a firearm that is not detectable by a walk-through metal detector, or x-ray machine.[13] Additionally, the United States, the United Nations, and many other national and multilateral bodies have outlawed the production and distribution of such weapons. The United Nations Small Arms Programme of Action, the United States Gun Control Act, and the European Union’s Firearms Directive are just a few of the many pieces of legislation already in place.

Therefore, the weapons produced by 3D printers are illegal, and law enforcement has undoubtedly been made aware of the potential threats posed by these munitions. The issues associated with the legality, at the moment, are centered on the free sharing of the computer files necessary for the production of such weapons by 3D printers, and the assumption that everyone in the world will comply with the legal and regulatory requirements placed on the technology, now and in the future.[14]

In May 2015, Defense Distributed shared the blueprints for the ‘liberator’ 3D printed firearm online on a website called ‘Thingiverse’.[15]The blueprints were available for download online for a total of 90 minutes before the US State Department forced Defense Distributed to remove the design files from the website, but not before 115 individuals downloaded them.[16] Right now, it is suspected that the files could be on the personal computers of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, all of whom can now produce a 3D printed firearm with relative ease. Although the US State Department was able to stifle the progress and ability of Defense Distributed to make the blueprints for the liberator available freely online, it will be extremely difficult for governments and multilateral security agencies of all kind to stop these types of files from being made available online in the future. Much like the illegal download of music, films, and other copyrighted entertainment, there is little that has been and can be done by authorities to put an end to the spread and relative ease of illegal material availability on the internet.

Now that it has been established that 3D printed firearms can be made of untraceable and undetectable plastic materials, and that governments are currently attempting to limit the availability of the blueprints required for the production of these firearms, it’s necessary to establish the practical security risks posed by technology, should it fall into the wrong hands. 3D printed firearms, like Defense Distributed’s ‘Liberator’, can be made up entirely of plastic, except for a small firing pin, making them undetectable by commonly used security screening devices.[17] Individuals with bad intentions can, with relative ease, bring a 3D printed firearm onto an airplane, or into other security sensitive areas and commit dangerous life threatening acts.

Additionally, the disposable and untraceable nature of home-printed plastic firearms poses serious issues for law enforcement. An individual who commits an illegal act with a 3D printed firearm can immediately dismantle, dispose of, or destroy the firearm, leaving little evidence behind. As well, 3D printed firearms are not produced with serial numbers and official registration, an essential step in the sanctioned production of firearms, a highly regulated industry throughout most of the world. Without registration, conventional firearms are automatically illegal to possess and distribute. 3D printed firearms circumvent most, if not all of the regulations on the firearms manufacturing industry imposed by governments and multilateral institutions. Moreover, the production, use, and distribution of 3D printed firearms pose a considerable security risk.

The products made publically available throughout the course of the technological revolution have resulted in an astonishing number of security threats. New threats emerge on almost a daily basis and require governments and security agencies to ensure laws and regulations are current enough to remain effective. The internet alone produces a copious amount of complex threats, the vast majority of which are developed and sent by individuals or groups with harmful intent. In recent years, technology has also advanced in the defence and aerospace industries to the point where military operations can be conducted in unmanned vehicles from tens of thousands of kilometers away. This technology, developed for use by militaries to keep human beings out of harm’s way, is now being used in the public, as the cost of the technology has dropped dramatically and become widely available for recreational use.[18]

3D printed firearms are currently in the same blurry legal space as UAV’s. Modern UAV technology has only been available to the public for a short time, and just like its technological successor, the 3D printer, it is poised to encounter many more legal difficulties on its climb to prominence and popularity. The risks posed by Unmanned Ariel Vehicles, commonly known as drones, are plentiful. However, UAV’s, and their treatment by governments, security agencies, and regulatory committees can lend insight into how emerging technology, like 3D printers, can pose a significant risk to societal security, and how important it is for governments to ensure laws and regulations are developed with a high degree of efficiency to ensure public safety.  Unmanned Ariel Vehicles are a relatively new technology, and as the industry evolves, and the technology becomes more common, issues such as physical safety, property safety and integrity, and espionage are an increasing concern.

In relation to physical safety, the addition of UAV’s into the mainstream public sphere has resulted in a plethora of accidents, usually caused by operator error. In the United States, several dozen UAV crashes have been reported, some of which have caused significant injury and property damage.[19]According to data recorded by the Democrat and Chronicle, there have been 28 UAV accidents in the United States since the technology became openly available for public purchase in 2012.[20] In a recently recorded incident, a UAV crashed in California, causing a fire.[21] In another incident, a UAV crashed outside of Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Texas during an attempt to smuggle cell phones, tobacco, and narcotics into the prison.[22] Moreover, it is evident that UAV technology poses a physical security risk if misused.

One of the more well-known risks posed by developed UAV technology is associated with espionage.  UAV technology must be operated within the guidelines of federal and international aviation laws. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration has attempted to educate individuals on what UAVs can and cannot be used for, including: flying below 400 feet, clear of obstacles; keeping within the operator’s line of sight, and avoiding people and buildings.[23]

In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration has also proposed new legislation to ensure UAV technology is properly registered, and operated by certified personnel commercially.[24] These can be seen as not only an attempt to improve public safety, but to ensure UAV technology is not being used for malicious purposes. In the United Kingdom, police have reported a massive spike in drone-related incidents related to covert surveillance.[25] Two separate incidents have been recorded involving surveillance drones hovering over children’s play areas, and following people home and hovering outside of bedroom windows.[26]The Civil Aviation Authority in the UK is focused primarily on ensuring UAVs are being used within the confines of the law in commercial practice, however, they have been forced in a few instances to prosecute recreational UAV owners for misuse.[27] Based on this assessment of UAV technology, it is evident that government has attempted to ensure laws and regulations can apply to situations where futuristic technology is being used for illegal or anti-social purposes.

The real trouble with UAV technology has been the rapid advancement of the technology, and the subsequent scrambling by governments to ensure the law is sufficient to facilitate their proper use. According to the CEO of Burrus Research, a US based research and consulting firm, “drones have advanced so quickly that the law hasn’t caught up with the technology…it’s a bit like the Wild West”.[28] Much like the challenges faced by governments and security agencies in their attempts to keep up with UAV technology, the future appears to be no less of a challenge, as the ‘next big thing’ appears to have arrived in the form of 3D printers.

Just like UAV technology, 3D printers, and 3D printed firearms more specifically appear to have a steep legal hill to climb before the industry takes off. There are currently a plethora of legal battles going on in the United States over the technology, and campaigns by prominent senators and politicians to ban 3D printed firearms are in full swing. According to the United States Senator for New York, Charles Schumer,

“These guns are just as deadly as any you’d see in a gun store, impossible to detect, and can be easily made by anyone with an internet connection and a thousand dollars…This means that anyone, anywhere, can now produce their own deadly weapons, and it must be stopped.  3D printers are a remarkable technology and have the capability to revolutionize manufacturing, and I am in no way suggesting that they be banned or tampered with.  We are simply attempting to outlaw their use for the productions of deadly weapons.”[29]

Schumer goes on to say that all of the gun control regulations in place to ensure public safety will do little good if criminals can print plastic firearms at home.[30] It appears that Schumer is not alone in this fight. Congressman Steve Israel declared in 2015 that he would reintroduce legislation that would ban 3D printed firearms, or any other fully plastic firearm by way of the proposed Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act, which Israel attempted to pass in 2014.[31] This act would effectively forbid the possession or manufacture of any gun that could slip through a standard metal detector, including those with a removable firing pin that could pass through security unnoticed.[32] Congressman Israel believes that the current Undetectable Firearms Act is insufficient in its attempt to stifle the progress of the 3D printed firearms, as companies like Defense Distributed continue to operate and produce open-source files for 3D printed firearms with little legal interference. The general belief surrounding the highly controversial topic is that lawmakers will continue to debate over the issue, which appears to becoming much more relevant as new technology emerges. In the meantime, blueprints for firearms made entirely of plastic using a 3D printer can be accessed online, and downloaded on various file sharing websites.

It is evident that the struggle to contain the ever-growing threat of 3D printed firearms is, much like UAV technology before it, an extremely complex and cumbersome task. But besides attempting to pass legal controls, or ordering the removal of 3D printed firearms blueprints online, what steps can be taken practically to mitigate the risk posed by the technology? Although gun control is and will likely remain to be an extremely contentious topic in America, it is not unreasonable to envision more regulatory controls placed on all gun manufacturers, including 3D printers for personal use.[33] According to Rory Little in his article, Guns Don’t Kill People, 3D printing Does?, one solution could be to “require that any gun made, including by a 3D printer, be ‘traceable’ through a unique serial number engraved on the gun itself (the number will be obtainable from a central registry website). With the manufacturers name and address registered in a national or statewide directory”.[34] This solution would avoid the sensitive topic of gun control, and merely require that all firearms, regardless of the way they were produced, be registered. This solution is not a far stretch from current firearm manufacturing requirements, which don’t include 3D printed firearms.

Little goes on to propose other possible regulatory measures that would effectively control the dangers posed by 3D printed firearms without interfering with the powerful pro-gun lobby in the West, or individuals fundamental freedoms. Little suggests making it “unlawful to post, transmit, or distribute a useable plan to 3D print a gun”, “unlawful to transmit the plans for a 3D printable gun (or ammunition) without sending a duplicate to the central Printable Weapon & Ammunition Board or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms”. Also, Little suggests that 3D printed firearms be registered, and all sales be recorded and transferred, the same way you’d transfer the title for the registration of a vehicle.[35] Moreover, Little’s recommendations call for strict government regulations on 3D printed firearms, which would fall in line with the same regulations used to register conventional firearms, vehicles, personal income, etc.

Making it the law to have 3D printed firearms owners register their 3D printed firearms is certainly a step in the right direction to ensure they are being used safely; however, the logic that weapons will be used properly as long as there are strict regulations behind them is naive. Criminals have and always will act outside of the law, and law enforcement will be able to do very little to ensure 3D printed weapons are being properly registered, as the technology that produces them are widely available for use in homes and private businesses. Government and law enforcement undoubtedly face an uphill battle to ensure the increasing popularity of 3D printed firearms is met with substantial laws and industry regulations. The best case scenario for government and law enforcement would be the passing into law of an outright ban on 3D printed firearms, and the creation, sharing, and possession of the files required to make the weapon. Although this is highly unlikely to occur anytime soon, it would certainly limit the production and availability of the technology to the public. For now, it appears as though the registration of 3D printed firearms, much like conventional firearms, is the most likely next step in the ongoing battle against weapons.

In conclusion, the purpose of this article was to identify the ever growing threat posed by 3D printers, and to establish what the future might look like for the technology capable of producing undetectable, untraceable firearms that could pass through modern security screening technology with relative ease. This article also aimed to compare the threat posed by 3D printed firearms to the threat posed by another emerging technology, Unmanned Ariel Vehicles. By understanding the threats posed by UAVs, and the ongoing struggle governments and law enforcement face to ensure the technology is not misused as it becomes more publically available, it becomes clear that 3D printers are a comparable threat. The final portion of this article outlined some of the various options available to government and law enforcement to ensure that the technology does not eclipse the reach of the law. It is evident that government and law enforcement will continue to struggle to contain the technology since obstacles posed individuals’ fundamental freedoms, insufficiencies in current laws and regulations, and powerful gun lobbies will drastically influence future proceedings. 3D printers are truly an amazing technological innovation, with bounds of potential. However, if 3D printers or any other emerging technology are not kept in-check through strict legal regulation, the technology can effectively disrupt public safety and pose a threat to sensitive security environments by individuals or groups with harmful intentions.