Home News Risk UK Comment: Technological advances will reshape the risk landscape

Risk UK Comment: Technological advances will reshape the risk landscape

by Brian Sims

The recent much-publicised news that Defense Distributed had designed, tested and made available the plans to create a firearm from files designed for a 3D printer has created much debate about this use of the technology. Whilst the launch of the freely downloadable plans for the Liberator plastic gun made headlines around the world, it was” at the time” just the latest step in the creation of 3D printed weapons. Previously, a modular assault rifle has been created with the lower receiver being printed from a 3D file. Whilst other parts of the rifle, such as the stock and barrel, were purchased, these can be obtained freely and without control. The lower receiver is the only element of the weapon considered a ‘firearm’ under law in the US, and is therefore the only part which is regulated for sale. Whilst much of the coverage of the release of the files for the Liberator raised concerns over widespread access to firearms and the potential for weapons to be internationally distributed, this misses the important issues raised by the latest development in what has been an on-going programme of development. The launch of the Liberator, and the subsequent free distribution of the files required to create the firearm, seems to be a political statement. Whilst there have been claims of crypto-anarchism and challenges to law enforcement, the main message seems to be one that challenges perceptions of how gun control laws conflict with the real world. Whilst many have viewed the creation of a 3D printable weapon as the beginning of a slide towards an apocalyptic future, that part of the development isn’t the one that should give concern. The reality remains that for most people intent on obtaining a firearm of some kind, the process is expensive, difficult and likely to deliver a product that is as dangerous” or sometimes more dangerous” to any firing it than to those in front of the gun! The manufacture of rudimentary weapons is nothing new. Zip guns have been widely made and used by criminals and gang members for decades, and in many countries in the Western world, the practice only died out because it became easier to attain genuine firearms via the black market. The process of making illicit weapons is still rife in many parts of the world were poverty and strict firearm regulation co-exist. In the past, plumbing supplies, coffee machine parts, torches and even lock cylinders have been used to fabricate firearms. These elements were easy to get hold of, low cost, and legal to obtain. The resulting weapons were volatile and inaccurate. Transferring the same thinking to 3D printing increases the manufacturing costs, and also creates weapons that are volatile and inaccurate. Concerns that 3D printing will see gun use skyrocket can therefore be called into question. The biggest issue, and the one that should concern risk mitigation professionals, especially those in the airport, port and borders agencies, is that guns created from 3D printing would be undetectable by current technology. Defense Distributed has, so far, been seen to be ‘playing the game’. The organisation has purchased a licence to operate as a firearm manufacturer and supplier. The organisation has also included a mass of metal in its product in order to meet legislation that firearms must be detectable. When pressured to remove the printer files from publicly accessible servers, it complied. Of course, the files are still available, such is the nature of propagation on the internet. The metal in the Liberator could be removed. However, if the objective of Defense Distributed was to make undetectable weapons available to terrorists, criminals and others intent on violent acts, it could be argued that their approach would have been significantly more clandestine. Not only would it have afforded them a significantly less legally fraught entry to the market, it would have also earned them a lot more money. In the past few days, news has surfaced of a newer 3D printed weapon. Named the Lulz Liberator, this weapon is claimed to be significantly cheaper to produce, more accurate, and is claimed to fire up to 9 rounds before needing parts replaced, as opposed to the Liberator’s single shot. There is no doubt that further advances will occur, and it is doubtless that prices will fall while reliability increases. With claims that various military research departments from various nations are experimenting with everything from 3D printed drones to weapon parts that can be created in the field as and when necessary, debating the future of 3D printing as a method for the creation of weapons and weapon parts is a little pointless. Just as the growth in IT technology affords us a wide range of benefits, so those benefits will also be realised” albeit in a negative way” by those seeking to cause terror-based acts or indulge in criminal activity. For those involved in risk mitigation, it is vital to look beyond the failings on the current crop of 3D printable weapons, and to consider strategies which apply to these threats, along with those yet to unfold. The power of modern technology is changing the risk landscape for many, and whilst the first eye will always be on military, governmental or political targets, the speed of IT adoption by some means those threats can translate into everyday risks in a very short matter of time.

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