Making Stuff

When people worry about the 4th Industrial Revolution and its implications for crime and security, they usually think about new ways to build weapons or engage in violence. In truth, we’ve already got plenty of weapons and plenty of creative (or banal) ways to do violence to each other. While some new methods of DIY weapon-making will indeed pose interesting new challenges, most DIY weapons would not change the overall game in an extreme way. But there are many things besides weapons that are monitored and “controlled” by virtue of centralized factory production. Other things are valuable precisely because they can’t be industrially manufactured at all. Post-industrialism and the diffusion of production capability might actually have greater impacts on these other areas.

Modern banknotes are a marvel of anti-counterfeiting. The banks and police agencies tenaciously fight counterfeiters however they can. Since Archimedes first ran naked through the streets, we’ve been coming up with clever ways to detect and prevent the counterfeiting of currencies and valuables. A competition between currency designers and illegal counterfeiters has been ongoing for millennia. Currency designers are always coming up with new anti-counterfeiting measures, and counterfeiters are always looking for new ways to beat them. Currency is one of the most attractive targets, but a wide variety of stuff can be lucrative to illegally make.

Knock-offs, counterfeits, and forgeries have a certain cachet in public consciousness and the criminal underworld. This is partially because counterfeiting can be a painstaking and high-skill crime, and also because it’s a non-violent crime with a “Robin Hood” flavor: the people and institutions that directly suffer the ill effects of counterfeiting are typically large, wealthy, and abstract. Unless you’re an insurer, in the auction business, or you’ve got the disposable income to collect high-value art, you probably don’t lose sleep when you hear about a master art forger. (Some skilled forgers become celebrities or folk heroes when unmasked). Art forgeries have gotten so good in recent years that some auction houses are now hesitant to authenticate newly-discovered pieces even with all the improvements to forensic methods. Insurers are becoming less willing to issue policies if there is any doubt of provenance. Some of the most reputable museums, galleries, and auction houses in the world have been scandalized to discover they’ve paid millions for phony art.


Can you tell the difference between the real “Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665)” by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, and a 2010’s forgery by master British art forger John Myatt? I can’t, and neither could Christie’s Auction House. There are at least 120 more Myatt forgeries in the wild. (Vermeer- Right; Myatt- Left Photo Credit)

Art forgery is almost as old as art, but lots of consumer goods can now be counterfeited in our post-industrial age. From high-dollar luxury brands to household staples, there’s money in fake stuff. A lot of the time, consumers don’t even care. If it’s cheaper than the real deal, looks good, and doesn’t fall apart immediately, many people won’t ask questions. From fancy watches, handbags, clothing, jewelry, and fashion accessories, to pharmaceutical drugs, food, booze, cigarettes, auto and aircraft parts (even whole aircraft), to household cleaning supplies, if there’s profit to be made then somebody’s thought of counterfeiting it. The social costs are hidden but real. Widespread counterfeiting imposes costs on police (and ultimately taxpayers) to fight them, and on private companies to develop anti-counterfeiting methods and set higher prices to offset losses. People can lose jobs, and everybody pays a little more for the real stuff when counterfeiters get good at making phony stuff.

The more controlled or illegal the product, the more money you can (usually) make if you’ve got good illegal production and distribution methods. Currency counterfeiting is a serious crime with serious penalties if caught, but you’re literally making money, a very attractive proposition. Other products are highly profitable specifically because they’re illegal. Sometimes, counterfeiters make money by exploiting the dumbest and most illegal aspects of illicit trade. The illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn is cruel, violent, ecologically damaging, and ultimately asinine considering the products aren’t really useful. Counterfeit animal products are arguably bad because they encourage the illegal trade, but they are also arguably good because every time somebody buys fake rhino horn, at least they’re not buying the real stuff. Parting these fools from their money may not be legal or ethical, but it is understandable.

The same goes for counterfeit artifacts and archeological goods: illegal digs and artifact theft are bad. These items can tell us valuable things about history, and they are important to the pride, identity, and tourist economies of many nations and cultures. As Indiana Jones would say “this belongs in a museum!” Instead, these items are often plundered and re-sold so some big-time banker can stroke a Babylonian idol while reciting Ozymandias. Even terrorist groups get in on the action: Daesh has re-sold many priceless artifacts from the historic sites they’ve plundered to finance their… whatever they’re trying to do.[i] This is, of course, when they’re not simply dynamiting and bulldozing incredibly important historic sites for being “un-Islamic.” Those who plunder artifacts, and those who knowingly buy them illegally, are pretty firmly within the category of people who deserve whatever is coming to them. Counterfeiters know this, and they’re getting better and better at suckering the black market buyers.


Believe it or not, you can make more money counterfeiting laundry detergent than robbing banks, and with a considerably lower risk of “high impact lead poisoning” too. Photo from The Counterfeit Report

In some cases, criminals make stuff to use in other crimes. Criminal rings counterfeit passports and identity documents, they steal customer data and clone credit cards and keycards. They make custom picks, keys, and bypass tools for high-security locks. Some savvy operators are using 3D printers to make “skimming” devices mountable to ATMS or point-of-sale credit card readers. These devices look like a legitimate part of the machine, but they are only there to collect your card data and PIN so they can sell the information or access your account later. Sometimes they go the extra mile, refurbishing and reprogramming the whole ATM just to steal data. Criminals are increasingly buying or making high quality disguises. Hackers can clone fingerprints and get past many biometric security systems. Prisoners around the world display an incredible level of ingenuity. They’ll try to make anything: weapons, intoxicants, tattoo equipment, art and craft supplies, escape tools. You name it, they’ve got all day to work on it.

Of course, the undefeated heavyweight champion of illegal products is drugs. There’s really nothing like illegal drugs to make a buck. There’s a practically endless variety of illegal (or quasi-legal) drugs that can be made and sold. Many drugs can be made clandestinely, most are incredibly profitable to smuggle, and they’re always in-demand. (Especially when the counterstrategies involve little effort to effectively educate, improve product safety, or sustainably reduce addiction…)

Tens of thousands of years ago, our early ancestors discovered that some plants are special. Not all of these pioneers were visionary, but they definitely had some visions. For millennia hence, drugs have been both blessing and curse to the species. It was only recently in historical terms that governments decided most of the enjoyable or useful drugs should be illegal outside of the medical system. The results have been more or less consistent with anarcho-crony-capitalism: nothing generates revenue, corruption, violence, addiction, incarceration, unsafe products, or social prejudice quite like the illegal drug trade. And nothing keeps the illegal drug trade going quite like the Drug War. It’s a brilliant make-work project for police, drug traffickers, and undertakers. But the illicit markets won decisively the moment we decided to call it a “War” instead of treating it as an issue for public health and adult choice. No lesson about illicit markets could ever be clearer than the example provided by the Drug War. Drug traffickers are some of the most creative, capable, and unstoppable illegal makers out there, and they’ve had more than a century to hone the craft.

Right now, a university-trained cartel chemist is synthesizing methamphetamine at an industrial warehouse in Mexico, probably under the vigilant protection of off-duty cops. In the meantime, staff at a shady Indian chemical engineering firm are making research chemicals, additives, and precursor ingredients to be promptly shipped to that Mexican warehouse, or to independent buyers in the developed world. Their counterparts in China are spraying dried plants with every garbage chemical they’ve got, so American parolees, welfare recipients, and military personnel can get high on “spice” without failing the “whiz quiz.” In Peru, a campesino is growing a couple dozen hectares of coca, hoping for a good crop to put food on the family table. In Afghanistan, another guy is doing the same thing with opium poppies. Somewhere on the West Coast, some chemistry grad students (and maybe a professor or two), are making LSD and MDMA in a clandestine lab. In Kansas City, a tragi-comic self-trained meth cook just received a trunk-load of Sudafed from a half-dozen “Smurfs,” and is trying to shake-and-bake some basement ice without blowing the house from its foundation. Somewhere in the suburbs of Vancouver (and pretty much everywhere else, too…), a plant biology dropout is trimming some really stellar weed and replacing the charcoal filters so the neighbors won’t notice. All are cogs in the world’s most vast and lucrative illicit trade.

They’re making stuff, and they’re always getting better. The illegal makers are always finding a way to make and sell whatever turns a buck or tickles their fancy, and it usually costs a lot more to shut down illegal makers than it costs them to continue profitably. Does this mean it’s pointless to ban anything? Not necessarily. Obviously, we can’t decriminalize currency counterfeiting, or art forgery, or fake cancer drugs. We have to make an attempt to control these things, but we also need to understand the challenges and trade-offs to combating illegal makers in a post-industrial age.

[i] As some readers might guess, this is false-ignorance for comic effect. Representatives of Daesh have stated their intentions clearly and repeatedly in a range of propaganda materials, and most explicitly in their disturbingly-slick magazine Dabiq. While they seek control of territories and populations to establish a new Islamic Caliphate, their stated motivations for doing so are unambiguously theologic and eschatological, rather than simply nationalist, separatist, or mercenary. The establishment of independent governance under an extreme interpretation of Sharia is, according to their own statements, only a prerequisite to the ultimate defeat of non-believers and the initiation of the end times they strongly desire. It is up to us whether we want to take apocalyptic factions at their word, or dismiss this as propaganda intended to aid recruitment/retention and provoke the civilized world into overreaction.

As it relates to the “4th Industrial Revolution,” the most prominent security concern caused by the diffusion of destructive capacity is not that it would complicate typical crime-fighting. Many factors can influence the intensity of crime and conflict, but escalations to indiscriminate and non-deter-able violence are rare among “transactional” actors interested primarily in money. Rather, the greater security concern is that apocalyptic groups may gain greater capability. These groups may not hesitate to use every weapon at their disposal, and are difficult or impossible to deter. Security researchers Daniel Tirone and James Gilley and Clint Arizmendi,  Ben Pronk, and Jacob Choi  have pointed this out. Gilley, Choi, and a variety of law enforcement officers and security specialists, articulately reiterated this concern in interviews for my research on DIY weapons.