Monday, 22 October 2012

Print your gun on a 3D printer

Cory Doctorow warns of a scary future--the new 3D printing technology will allow people to create their own guns...and many other handy tools and objects.

Doctorow spoke at the Centre for Digital Media on October 22 to a crowd made up of students from the Centre and members of the BC Civil Liberties Association.  His lecture was entitled "An appliance is a computer with spyware on it out of the box."
Wikipedia says "3D printing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital model. 3D printing is achieved using additive processes, where an object is created by laying down successive layers of material.  3D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques (subtractive processes) which mostly rely on the removal of material by drilling, cutting etc."

Doctorow chose to talk about a potentially frightening use of this new technology as away of raising issues around efforts to control technology.  He built up to 3D technology by giving a history of the failed attempts to control technology with other technology.
His story started with the days a quarter century ago when people shared software by "sneaker net."  That involved downloading software to a floppy disk in your computer and wearing your sneakers as you walked to a friend's computer and copied the software onto their computer.  He then described how tech companies tried to control this by putting blocks onto the disks.  And then other computer users found ways to break the locks. 

Doctorow followed this with a range of further examples of technology limits broken by other technologies.
The other approach to control is through laws.  The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) was created as a control system, effectively working for corporate interests.  The Canadian Conservative government when it passed the new Copyright Act this last summer went even further than required by international agreements.  The new law makes it illegal to break a digital lock to use software, even if you own the content that is behind the lock--a law adopted at the behest of the technology and movie corporations.

Doctorow expanded on his point of corporate control by describing McDonalds and Walmart as technology companies--their domination is created by the technology of their supply chains.  He also lamented our government joining the TPP--the Trans-Pacific Economic Partnership.  The treaty will likely give even more power to corporations on technology issues--and Canada has signed on to accept whatever is negotiated by the other countries involved, without being able to influence the outcomes.
Back to printing our own gun.  The dangers in this will likely lead for calls for controls both in laws and in technology.  Doctorow described the ways that tech companies imbed controls within the technology that hide the control code so that the owner of the machine is supposed not to be able to find it.  But every time a new approach is created, other techies have found ways of finding it and getting around it.

One of the attempts at controls is to include spyware when the computer is built and its presence is hidden so the user is unaware of its existence.  This allows the behavior of the computer user to be monitored.
Ah, hidden spyware--an explanation for this being an issue of interest to the BC Civil Liberties Association. 

Doctorow illustrated the problem with a story about a school (in Texas, I believe) that provided an Apple laptop to every student with spyware built in that allowed the principal to watch the students, including when they took the computers home and had them on in the room where they were changing clothes.  It was discovered when a student was called in to the office to be challenged on some behavior that the principal could not have known about otherwise.

So how are we going to control the 3D created guns?  Doctorow said he didn't know.  But he was sure that both the legal and technology approaches used in the past would not accomplish the task and attempts to use these approaches will have many negative implications.

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author and has been active in the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the UK Open Rights Group.



  1. RE 3D created guns: Canadian Director David Cronenberg made a famous film in 1983 in which bizarre technologically created bio-guns (guns that become part of the body) were used in a series of murders. The film is "Videodrome". FYI, Marshall McLuhan was "credited as an influence on Cronenberg's ideas for the film" and seems to be inspiration for the character of "Brian O'Blivion" in the film.

  2. For anyone who wants to use their printer to make weapons, the web is a treasure trove. The CAD files needed to build popular hand guns are readily available and efforts to make a 3D printed gun have begun.