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3D printing could ‘increase the risk of violence and murder’, group warns

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The RAND Corporation has published a paper discussing the threat of 3D-printed weapons and other items, which it argues could put global, national and personal security at risk.

The issue of 3D-printed weapons came to prominence in 2012, when Defense Distributed - a US-based group - announced that it would design a working gun which could be manufactured by anybody owning a 3D printer. After Defense Distributed posted its first blueprint for the gun online, the US Department of State demanded that it must be removed, although guns can still be printed using patterns lingering on file sharing websites.

Since then, the threat of such easily accessible and difficult to regulate firearms has been discussed in the US and elsewhere.

Now, a RAND Corporation paper, Additive Manufacturing in 2040: Powerful Enabler, Disruptive Threat, has laid out in detail the potential dangers of 3D printing, including its exploitation by military foes, extremists and street gangs. The growth of 3D printing could “significantly accelerate weapon proliferation and have dramatic effects on international conflict, violent extremism and even everyday crime,” the report said.

“Lone-wolf attacks may become more lethal when individuals have ready access to 3D printers,” said Trevor Johnston, political scientist and lead author of the paper.

“Even in countries like the US, where gun control laws have done little to restrict access to semi-automatic weapons, additive manufacturing could increase the risk of violence and murder.”

According to the paper, 3D printing could play a role in supporting rogue states such as North Korea. Rather than relying on other countries to manufacture complex items, such as weapons or aircraft or submarine components, these states could rely on domestic additive manufacturing, allowing them to skirt around international sanctions.

Meanwhile, the RAND Corporation also warns that manufacturing companies could suffer as a result of the rise of additive manufacturing, as many items could be produced locally rather than bought from specialists, weakening international trade relations and causing unwelcome disruption in labour markets.

“Unemployment, isolation and alienation of middle and low-skilled labourers may be exacerbated by additive manufacturing, potentially leading to societal unrest in both developed and developing countries,” said Troy Smith, another author of the paper. “The potential security implications of large masses of unemployed, disconnected people are substantial.”

The paper also explored the vulnerability of additive manufacturing processes to hacking, which could cause important components of aircraft, for instance, to be printed with flaws. Last year, a team of US researchers suggested a creative approach to tricking hackers who steal designs for 3D-printed items, by embedding hidden flaws into designs which can be neutralised under specific conditions.

According to the RAND Corporation, the magnitude of the future threats associated with 3D printing will depend on how 3D printers, their materials and their software are developed and regulated in the coming years, with a focus on raw material controls potentially being most effective for minimising these threats. For instance, limiting supplies of fissile material could prevent devastating nuclear weapons being manufactured with the assistance of 3D printing.

However, these measures and others, the paper suggests, will not be enough to halt the growth of risks associated with 3D printing. By its very nature, this technology allows individuals or groups of states to build dangerous items undercover and without the need for specialist equipment. The RAND Corporation has called for policymakers to take time to consider the security risks that 3D printing will bring and how this could be handled in the future.

“Awareness of potential problems, continued research, and insights from industry professionals and security experts are needed to get the balance [of recommendations] right,” the authors wrote. “Any new technology brings potential benefits and threats. While fraught with risks, policymakers must begin to address the hard security questions that AM will bring.”

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