3D gun printing, hidden eyeglass cameras, constant cyberhacks: Are we all doomed?

3D gun printing, hidden eyeglass cameras, constant cyberhacks: Are we all doomed?

Summary: These technologies are wonderful, empowering, and simply breathtaking. They're also no end of trouble.


Technology is a beautiful thing. It's capable of transforming our lives. We can talk to family and friends across the world or around the corner. We can replace failed organs with artificial ones. We can play Angry Birds and carry around little, portable supercomputers in our pockets.

And we can print guns out of plastic and video private conversations simply by wearing eyeglasses.

The challenge of technology is that it has no soul. Technological devices have no direct awareness of wrong or right (with the exception of certain videogame quest lines). What we, as humanity, craft out of our brilliance and enterprise and concentration of economic power are simply tools.

A hammer can be used to build a home, or bash in a head. A pressure cooker can be used to make chilli, or brutalize a city.

And a consumer-grade 3D printer can be used to print out tacky little toys, or make undetectable and untraceable weapons.

We rely on law enforcement to keep us safe, to investigate crimes, and to bring criminals to justice. The science of forensics has become a key tool in criminal investigations. Guns leave traces, and when a crime is committed, it's often possible to forensically analyze the limited evidence left by a weapon and trace it back to a suspect.

But 3D plastic guns open up worrisome doors. No longer are guns available only from dealers and known manufacturers; they can now be printed from melted plastic. If you thought cooking crack was a problem in cities, wait until gun makers start cranking out handguns from open-source designs.

Not only could these things be made by anyone with a relatively inexpensive printer and laptop, they could be melted down and repurposed into children's toys upon completion of the crime.

Then there are the digitally enhanced eyeglasses we're currently calling Google Glass. Like 3D-printed plastic guns, these things are crude in their early versions. Even so, they open the door to some very disturbing violations of privacy (and good taste).

The ability to miniaturize cameras, shrink computers, wirelessly send data packets, and socially network to thousands of our friends may make George Orwell's vision of Big Brother seem tame by comparison.

Certainly, we've already seen how hidden recorders and cameras have upset presidential campaigns, whether it's the 47 percent or bitter small towners, clinging to guns and religion.

We've also seen the benefit of citizen smartphone recording, especially when it comes to finding terrorists who carry out acts of extreme barbarism.

And yet, what of employees who use Google Glass to record trade secret information, spies who use hidden eyeglass cameras to record national security secrets, or the high-school student who uses eyeglass cameras in locker rooms to record the private parts of his or her fellow students?

Then, of course, there's the constant, never-ending, always increasing, unyielding barrage of cyberespionage and cybercrime.

By enabling always-on broadband, and plumbing our towns and cities with high-speed internet access, we've made it possible to connect with each other in wondrous ways. But we've also created a world where criminals in China and Belarus are only a few hundred milliseconds from our parents, children, and loved ones.

These technologies are wonderful, empowering, and simply breathtaking. They're also no end of trouble.

How would wise minds like Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin have looked upon these threats, when they were coding the DNA of our great republic? Would they have constantly tried to diminish our privacy, like our current Congress critters seem hell bent on doing? Or would Jefferson and Franklin have insisted that our online liberty is the same as liberty itself?

The fact is, this scale of technological vs. terrible challenge is not new. It goes back thousands of years. When the Romans created trade between Europe and China for much-desired silk, not only did traders travel the Silk Road — so did vermin. And so did the Black Death.

When nuclear technology was initially developed, it was harnessed to destroy our enemies. Fat Man and Little Boy killed hundreds of thousands of people when they exploded over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, respectively. And yet, nuclear medicine has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

I believe that Jefferson and Franklin would have advised us that nothing is black and white. Our legal and policy systems can't paint everything with a broad brush, and we must use our unique human intelligence and analytic skills to distinguish between true threats and crimes from mistakes and the expansion of our technological knowledge base.

In fact, this necessity to distinguish and discern is why we have a complex justice system with courts, judges, prosecution, defense, witnesses, and more. The challenge of adjudicating shades of gray must fall to humans with the ability to distinguish the subtlety of the facts and how situational circumstances relate to human behavior.

Take, for example, the recent case of Eagle Scout Cole Withrow, a young man who made a mistake. He drove his truck to school and, upon arriving, realized he still had left his skeet-shooting shotgun in his truck.

He faced a choice: Leave school to return the shotgun to his home (which would have resulted in a leaving-school penalty) or admit his problem and ask for help. Perhaps he didn't take exactly the right course. He locked his truck, went into the school office, and called his mother, asking her to come to school and bring home the shotgun. He was overheard, and all hell broke loose.

The boy, mere months from graduating, is now facing felony weapons charges and has been suspended from school, pushing back his graduation date by a full year.

And yet, young Cole did almost exactly what we'd train an Eagle Scout to do. I had the high honor of having earned my Eagle Scout badge (along with bronze, gold, and silver palms) almost four decades ago, but the training of how to be prepared and how to react with a level head in the face of emergency has always stayed with me.

Perhaps Withrow should have admitted his mistake directly to school officials, without calling his mother first. But that's the only mistake he made. Many would say he would have been smarter to rush home, feign illness, and lie to avoid penalty. But that's not how we want our young men to behave.

We want our future leaders to behave with honor, with honesty, and to face sticky problems with integrity and in partnership with the various authorities in residence. The problem is that Withrow was punished without consideration of nuance. His authorities took a young man, who by all accounts knew how to behave and how to handle problems, and taught him (and, by extension, other promising young people) that being honest is not the way to behave, that trusting in the authorities is a mistake, rather than a best practice.

This brings me back to the question of our technologies, of 3D printing, of Google Glass, of ubiquitous, worldwide internet access, even of nuclear technologies, and the benefits and horrors that come from what we often call progress.

As we move forward, as we face more technologies that have positives and negatives, yins and yangs, the promise of incredible good and the curse of unyielding evil, we must distinguish and discern our policies and systems of law with care, with consideration, and perhaps with a thought to how Jefferson and Franklin would have approached the amazing advances of mankind.

Topics: Google, Government, Privacy, Security


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • You left out several significant examples...

    The printing press and the printing of the Bible for the masses - no longer were they dependent on the church authorities for information, allowing them to think for themselves.

    The telephone, allowing people to call for assistance... but also allowing for gambling/wire fraud.

    The automobile popularly used to get from place to place, rapid transport of the injured for medical treatment; but also used for fast getaways from crime scenes, as well as killing massive numbers of people.

    The refrigerator - great for long term preservation of foods... but also good for hiding murder victims, and killing children while playing.

    BTW, open source plans for plastic guns are not the issue - you can use any design for a gun you want - make it look like a toy ray gun... or even a camera.

    There are many uses for a 3D printer (even more in the future). They are used right now to model medical implants, even print replacement parts - blood vessels are being experimented with, but any suitable organ will eventually be able to be printed - and that used as the infrastructure for replacement organs.

    Cell phones are quite useful for calling for assistance, and general communication; yet they can also be used to detonate bombs remotely.
    • RE: You left out several significant examples...

      Don't forget the special 3D printer designed to build 3D objects from artificial moon dust they have been experimenting with. The idea is to send a large version of that 3D printer to the moon with some construction robots to turn real moon dust into 3D printed support columns and roof arches to hold up an inflatable moon base, as well as chairs, tables, beds and storage containers for use in the base. This will allowing for a moon base to be built with only a third of the construction supplies needed to be sent to the moon from earth saving a lot of money.
    • Sure they have multiple uses ...

      Youre just saying its worth it for several to die by those uses so that you have your conveniences.
      • No

        These people are just expanding on the good that can come from technology. Nothing can justify the wrongful use of it. It isn't the item or technology that is right or wrong - it is how it is used.

        Most everyone is familiar with the story of Abel and Cain. A rock that was good to grind grain, break open a coconut, and other useful tasks, was used to kill a person. Does that make rocks bad? Maybe all rocks should have been destroyed so they couldn't have been used as a weapon.

        As David pointed out, this is where we need conscientious lawmakers and judges. Our children need to be taught moral values - especially by example. Just because something might be legal doesn't make it morally right. Morality, as taught by many religions and philosophies, is to consider other people - how you would feel if someone did a certain act toward you.
  • Think you nailed the real problem.

    Yes they are all just tools. The problem is that in recent history, and all over the world, we are all being trained to look purely at black and white, right and wrong, (or for an appropriate reference, 0 and 1). Nuance is not part of the world right now. Whether it's radical Muslims that equate all Americans with the 'America' they are taught dogmatically to hate, Christians who seems to conveniently toss out the love and compassion parts of the Scripture are no different. And politicians, administrators, bureaucrats and such who are taught to simply look up a rule and apply it are complicit here too. The Scout example is a good one of that. While it makes their life easier (and less likely to involve lawyers) it leads to a generation that cannot sit down and reason the implications of something. It's 'good' or 'evil'.

    And nothing is just good or just evil. Like the hammer. Or a pair of Google Glasses. Or a PC or an iPhone. Or for that matter a shaker of salt, a soft drink or a car. We have to be smart enough to know what the options are and make an intelligent decision. Unfortunately I wonder if we are losing that ability. Hope we don't have to eventually drive ourselves to the brink of extinction to find out how again.
    • Another Example

      Some of you may have seen the online petitions (it has not been on the major news media, much less on Fox) about a young lady with honor grades in science who performed a science experiment on the school lawn (with reasonable safety precautions) of putting acid and chips of aluminum (or aluminium) in a water bottle. She had seen a web video in which it burst the bottle open, so she kept anyone from coming close. Her experiment ONLY blew the lid off (may have been less tight than in the video), hurt no one, damaged no property.

      When I was in high school, that would have resulted in a stern lecture from the principal, and possibly detention, tempered with a small amount of praise (great idea, but next time ask the chemistry teacher to supervise). But in Bartow, Florida, a small town which is the conservative county seat of a conservative Polk County (but not the largest city), this 15 year old honor student was EXPELLED and charged, as an ADULT, with FELONY possession of an EXPLOSIVE device after being ARRESTED ON THE SPOT by the school resource officer. The principal told local TV reporters on screen (which was in the video accompanying the petition) that it was tragic, he understood that she had no harmful intent, and no harm was done, but HE HAD NO CHOICE under the state's zero tolerance laws. Did he really have no choice? Would this (white) principal have reacted this way if it had been, say, a (white) city council member's child, rather than an African American girl? Knowing Bartow (I lived in Lakeland some years ago for a while, and had to be on a jury in Bartow) and Florida, I seriously doubt it. Now this young lady will have to go to an alternate high school (or school in prison) to get her diploma, serve up to five years, and not even be able to vote without a long, expensive petition to the governor* when she finishes her prison term, costing the taxpayers a bundle of money (which will probably go to a private prison company owned by the current governor's buddies), and not make the state any safer.

      *The previous governor, Charlie Crist, had set up a streamlined program so that the majority of non-violent felons could get their civil rights back with a simple mail-in form, but the current governor, Rick Scott, previously the CEO of a hospital company that committed felony Medicare fraud, but got the votes ANYWAY, immediately cancelled that program.

      Politicians love to get voters aroused to pass all-or-nothing laws that nullify the exercise of human reasoning: three strikes, possession with assumed intent to sell, and on the OTHER side, ironically, proposed "2nd Amendment" state laws that remove the discretion to bar guns ANYWHERE, which, ironically, would have helped that scout, but also would have helped the school shooters who have NOT been successful because they were caught. And lower level bureaucrats have always used rules to avoid being held responsible for decisions, as in "I followed the rules and it still turned out bad, so it's not MY fault!" The elaborate ammunition accounting system in the British Army during the Zulu uprising in 1900 allowed the Zulus to spear the Brits to death while they were filling out the forms for more bullets. It's not that we do not have common sense; it's that we have systems that make people AFRAID FOR THEIR JOBS, OR WORSE, if they USE their common sense to go beyond the specific rules, EVEN if it turns out better, and CERTAINLY if it turns out with a bad result.

      Could this be the reason we are not producing the genius students we claim to want/
      • Another example.

        So you're saying she's being prosecuted for the water bottle incident because she's non-white??
    • You stated radical Muslims are no different than extreme Christians?

      Most of your position is well-stated. I only dispute this one point because it's unsupported by facts. In modern times, few Christians are joining multinational organizations bent on violent terrorism.
    • We should all have nuclear devices.

      Theyre just tools you know. What you do with them is totally up to you.

      Would you trust everyone to own something like that? I wouldnt trust some with a car or a phone or half of the devices you mentioned.
    • You said ...

      ... "and nothing is just good or just evil" but, more correctly, NOBODY is just good or just evil. Tools are tools. They are neither good nor evil.

      It is the humans using the tools which are both "good" AND "evil".

      We are all "good" in some contexts and "evil" in other contexts.

      For instance, most of us would happily kill another human being in order to protect the people we love. Collectively, we would fight (and die) for our country. Often, even for our religion.

      Reminds me of a saying from the 1980's ... "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

      In the 1970's Anwar Sadat (of Egypt) and Menachem Begin (of Israel) made peace between their two countries - and they shared the Nobel Peace Prize with President Jimmy Carter. Anwar paid for that peace with his life just a few years later.

      Ironically, in their youth, both were terrorists fighting over the region know for centuries as Palestine.

      Was that peace (which still holds to this day) in any way diminished because, in their youth, two of its architects killed people in the name of their respective causes?
      M Wagner
      • "One man's terrorist"...

        ...was, in my opinion, a lie and a dangerous one. If we start seeing Americans shoot their fellow citizens on suspicion of voting the wrong way, that will, no doubt, be one the the rationalizations used.
        John L. Ries
    • I'm not convinced that's the case

      I think that as least as often as we're faced with false dicotomies, we're also faced with people who have been trained, either by themselves or others, to either mistrust or outright suppress their own consciences. We've developed quite a talent for calling good evil and vice versa. There have been professional rhetoricians for millenia, but they didn't have radio or television until the 20th Century).

      Thanks for the story of Cole Withrow. It's always painful to be punished for doing the right thing, but the best of us do it anyway with no regrets. I hope that this experience won't dissuade him from doing the right thing, no matter the consequences, all his life.
      John L. Ries
  • Not plastic guns

    Just plastic parts -- and not the parts that make the difference between a capgun and a weapon. Of course, as the article points out, many things can be used as weapons... ask a prison guard.
    • Not that unique

      Like plastic guns are some revelation! zip guns have been around for ever and are far cheaper one (or more) shot jobs than anything you can produce with a plastic printer. The people that are hell bent on killing aren't going to spend $1200 on a 3d printer and wait hours and hours until they have something usable.
      • But ...

        You have to be able to get the zip gun inside where ever in the first place. Using the printer one could print the gun inside the secure facility for pickup and then use it once inside. If everyones sleeping on the space shuttle maybe one of the guys could print a gun up and hijack the thing. ... this is totally gonna be in a sci fi action movie at some point ...
  • Weapons and eye glasses

    You can pick up cheap camera glasses from China already that record video with the ones that use to only record 320 * 240 and 620 * 480 at 15fps 2 years back replace by newer models that will now record in 720P or 1080p at 25fps now on the market. The same tech in the glasses is also available in pen or watch format to allow for hidden filming. They don't have all the extra fancy options of Google glass but as most of them have 4, 8 or 16gb of built in memory they can record for quite a few hours once you press the button to start recording.
    The pictures of that 3D printed gun I saw in another news article showed it with 3 identical barrels in the case with the trigger section. I would guess the barrels are most likely 1 time use only and must be swapped with every bullet shot as I would guess they would deform once used. Apparently it has a metal firing pin that must be added and the bullets are still metal so I guess they are not 100% undetectable. But with other plastic parts printed and the classic gun shape of the main parts altered a bit the gun could possibility be smuggled on a plane disguised as a plastic toy and the extra parts discarded when the gun is resembled on the plane. Hiding the bullet will be the only part that could trip them up as security! They are just a more modern plastic version of the classic wooden zip gun.
    • RE: Weapons and eye glasses

      I think many are missing the point. If you can print the lower receiver of the AR-15 the rest can be ordered online by anyone and shipped to any address. The Lower receiver is the gun as far as the law is concerned and the only part that requires a background check. If we get to a point where a reliable lower receiver can be printed then there is really nothing the government can do (short of stopping all gun parts sells) to stop someone from getting a gun. This does not just apply to AR-15s, pistols and other gun designs are the same way.
      • Strange law

        Lower receiver is foolproof to copy. But the heavy parts like bolt and barrel are free available.
        Buy a a small used milling machine instead of a 3D printer. Get a nice piece of steel, a quiet saturday night and have more fun when milling than when shooting.
  • Libertarians are scum

    How long until a Libertarian prints a virus on their 3D printer just to "stick it to the gubbmint", and accidentally wipes out all human life?
    • I was going to rip this comment and then saw the logic behind it.

      I have read a few articles about the potential of 3D printing as it pertains to biochemistry. What you suggest would not be easy but it would be possible.

      IMO, an easily manufactured bio-weapon is much more a threat than multitudes of plastic guns released upon the population. To be crude, the potential damage inflicted upon innocents by bullets pales in comparison to bio-weapons.

      Actually, the question always boils down to how robust societally safeguards are at preventing acts of evil. Better to trust and encourage traditional family values, The Boy and Girl Scouts and their ethics, and "God and Country" morality - or, for our enlightened Atheists amongst us, an over-developed sense of humanism - than to legal restrictions or technological protection solutions.