Guns, Privacy, and Freedom Benefit From New Tech Tools

As it turns out, if you want to be a successful subversive, you probably shouldn't take on the moniker "Dr. Death" as you publicly tout your establishment-challenging ways. That's what Daniel Crowninshield did with regard to the unfinished firearm receivers he sold, to be completed on computer numerically controlled (CNC) mills in his North Sacramento, California, machine shop. Theoretically, customers operated the mills themselves, making the finished firearms legal. But an undercover agent insisted that shop employees did the honors, and Crowninshield got three and a half years in prison.

What's remarkable about this story isn't just Crowninshield's excessive enthusiasm in marketing his services, however. More important is what this story illustrates about the unenforceable nature of laws that people find oppressive—and the growing vulnerability of such restrictions.

Strictly speaking, Crowninshield's act of defiance was old-school; while he apparently used computer-controlled machines, there's no reason trained machinists couldn't have cranked out those receivers using traditional tools and their own skills—except, that is, for the (not so, as it turned out) plausible deniability that they were being operated by untrained customers. There was enough demand for such services that there was sometimes a line outside Crowninshield's shop, according to an undercover agent. AR-15 receivers invisible to government scrutiny, "in the hundreds at a minimum," were supposedly cranked out at that one North Sacramento operation.

But enthusiasts actually can and do personally operate Cody Wilson's push-button Ghost Gunner CNC mills—which Wired described as "absurdly easy to use." Again, there's enough demand for such services that hundreds of the high-tech machines have been sold, putting the manufacture of finished firearm receivers within reach of people who don't have machinists' skills. And there's no way of knowing how many finished receivers have been quietly knocked out on the devices after they're delivered. Which was the whole reason Wilson developed the Ghost Gunner, after demonstrating that a working, if simple, pistol could be created on a 3D printer.

Of course, this isn't just about things that go bang. Several years ago, Wilson teamed up with fellow crypto-anarchist Amir Taaki to develop DarkWallet, a Bitcoin wallet intended to add an extra layer of anonymity to the virtual currency so that financial transactions could more effectively evade official scrutiny. Development of DarkWallet briefly stalled as Taaki disappeared for a while on a lower-tech mission to shoot at ISIS troops on behalf of the Rojava enclave in northern Syria. But with Taaki back (though under investigation by British authorities over his Syrian adventure), the software is now available in beta form.

"I believe in the hacker ethic," Taaki said about not just DarkWallet, but his overall philosophy. "Empower the small guy, privacy and anonymity, mistrust authority, promote decentralized alternatives, freedom of information," he says. "These are good principles. The individual against power."

For good reason, Wilson and Taaki play central roles in Adam Bhala Lough's The New Radical, a documentary about activists who push the boundaries of technology that empowers individuals against the state. The film received a mixed reception at the Sundance film festival, the Los Angeles Times noted in January—not because of its quality, but because comfortably liberal attendees who like to think of themselves as the good guys realized they were among the targets of anti-authoritarians who look "to create fundamental political change by pushing for one or more of the following: an eradication of intellectual-property laws, radical free speech, fierce encryption to protect that speech, anonymous money (basically, digital currency not controlled or monitored by any government) and a general disdain for traditional legislative structures." And easily available weapons, of course.

Lough's film is a bit of a companion piece to Alex Winter's Deep Web, about Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, and Laura Poitras's Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden. All three films cover techno-activists who have challenged government authority (with high-stakes personal consequences, in the case of the imprisoned Ulbricht). These activists, promoting new means of empowering the old and natural human inclination to tell authority to go to hell, have had a big and continuing impact—perhaps bigger than some of them expected. Just poking government in the eye may have been the original aspiration of Cody Wilson and his allies when they set out to create the original, single-shot, 3D-printed gun.

"At our maximum as an organization, we were always trying to project these images of a future that was unwilled, or unwished for, on the part of our enemy," he told The Verge. "I was never actually trying to say, 'The solution is here, oh my God, we've done it.' I was trying to inject an undeniable nightmare-like scenario for power to receive, the power we believed we were opposing."

Since then, though, headlines about 3D-printed and CNC-machined guns have proliferated around the world, even when the modern technologies have nothing to do with the actual black market-produced weapons in question. This has government officials in full freak-out mode seeking to restrict that which was deliberately designed to be beyond their control.

Likewise, Edward Snowden's revelations about National Security Agency surveillance drives surging popular interest in encryption tools that have become ever-easier to use. This has authorities like FBI Director James Comey in a deep sulk over the public's resistance to surveillance.

And if Bitcoin and other virtual currencies haven't yet become full-fledged alternatives to government money, they have shown promise as havens from capital controls and financial scrutiny. Logically, that has establishment types upset that "non-state actors can use VCs to disrupt sovereignty and increase political and/or economic power," as the Rand Corporation warned.

Of course, the desire to be free has always competed with governments' desire to control. That many people don't automatically knuckle under isn't a new development. What's new, though, is the current wave of technologies making it easier to flip the bird to regulators and prohibitionists.

Well, they makes it easier if you don't openly advertise your subversive activities under a catchy moniker.