Plastic Terrorism: 3D Printing will transform security

  • The forthcoming revolution in 3D printing will transform many industries and sectors, including security
  • Files to print crossbows, guns and drones are freely available online for anyone with an internet connection and 3D printer
  • Terrorists already download files platforms to create weapons, as seen with the 2013 Boston marathon bombs.
  • 3D printing will make the procurement of advanced technology far easier, with huge implications for the way we think about security. 

The 1999 film The Matrix was prophetic in many ways. Watch it again today, nearly two decades later and you will see what I mean. Towards the end of the film, the lead character, Neo, finds himself on top of a building in the middle of a gunfight. He notices an unused helicopter, and in the space of two seconds, downloads the piloting instructions into his mind. At the time, it was pure fantasy. 

Fast forward to today, and such an idea isn't so fanciful. Downloading detailed instructions, how-to-guides to the palm of your hand is a normal, routine part of life. In short; digital files are used more and more to create physical things.

What the Matrix didn't forsee was the revolution in 3D printing. Helicopters can now be downloaded, printed and flown. On its own, 3D printing itself is a great technology, which can bring huge benefits to consumers and companies across the globe. Broken your iPhone screen? Print out a new one. Need a new pair of sunglasses? Buy online and print them out. The fundamental aspect of 3D printing is that you can buy / download a digital file, and turn that file into a physical object. 

The problem is, 3D printed objects can be Lego toys, or furniture items. They can also be bombs. Downloading files that would physically help you in a terrorist attack is has led to the phenomenon of 'Open Source Jihad'. We can track the beginnings of open source jihad to 2010, when Al-Qa'ida's branch in Yemen released an article in its online magazine; 'Inspire', which detailed the specific instructions around how to make a bomb in the family kitchen.

The Western media was up in arms. It was a watershed moment. The instructions for how to make a single bomb were now freely available on the internet.

Around the world, intelligence agencies and governments panicked as anyone with an internet connection could make one of the bombs featured in Inspire. In 2013, those fears were realised as pressure-cooker bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. The bombs were replicas of those from the Inspire magazine.

Ultimately, the 'Inspire' kitchen bomb was rudimentary. But what if the bomb designers and bombers both had 3D printers? A much more advanced device would be readily accessible, and arguably easier to build.

The cost of 3D printing is plummeting. Many of 2015's best 3D printers are about the same price as an Apple laptop and the ramifications for the security world are huge. Last week, the Royal Navy printed a plane and flew it from a ship to land on shore. Last month, a group of terrorists were caught with a 3D printer (as well as explosives and guns) in Hong Kong. Indeed, it may be a surprise to learn that files to 3D print a gun are freely available, with sites like Wiki Weapons advocating their development. 

3D printing will upend many industries over the next 5-10 years, and the security world is no different. Want to print out a drone, a firearm, or a missile? In the future, it could be as easy as downloading a new app to your phone.

What are the implications?

1. 3D printing further shifts the emphasis of the security and intelligence world online. Understanding how threats 'jump' from the online to the physical world  is more critical than ever, and has lead to the creation of a range of online intelligence businesses like Neon Century 

2. 3D printing puts more power in the hands of the individual and erodes Government's ability to control sensitive technology. You can now 3D print as many credit card skimmers, as police in Australia discovered in 2013. 3D printing will continue the trend of individuals and non-state groups acquiring advanced, sometimes military-grade technology for little to no cost. They are bad news for governments: what use are gun-control laws if you can print one out at home? 

3. Sophisticated, ISIL-style attacks in the West will be easier to achieve with 3D printing. It's a matter of time before high-quality 3D printing files of bombs, miniature drones, guns and other weapons are freely available online. The easier these items are to acquire, the easier it is to carry out an attack.

All of this paints a bleak picture of the future; where advanced weaponry could be freely available to all. Perhaps the best way to counter these threats is to track, follow and disrupt those who are sharing and downloading 3D files online. Searching for common files, platforms and mapping those who have viewed and shared such files is perhaps the most logical step to disrupt what is a very useful technology for terrorists and criminals.

Ultimately, however, it would seem the genie is now out of the printer.

Cameron Colquhoun is one of the UK's leading experts in Intelligence, with over a decade's experience working on intelligence matters with the UK Government and FTSE100 businesses. He has featured on BBC News, the Daily Telegraph and others. Cameron is the Managing Director of Neon Century, a boutique cyber intelligence and investigations consultancy based in London.