Originally developed as a pesticide and disinfectant, Zyklon B was used by Nazi Germany to kill people.
It's a truism that technology isn't good or evil by itself -- it's all in how people use it. The same technologies that can ensure privacy and security for people living under repressive governments can be used to conduct illegal transactions, and the knowledge that scientists need to fight the next flu epidemic can also be used to make weapons. "The very first technology was probably fire," said Marc Goodman, security expert and founder of the Future Crimes Institute. "It can cook your food or burn down the next village." The difference now, he said, is that the rate of technological change is so rapid that it's easier for people to apply technologies for good and ill.
The following is a list of innovations that were designed to make the world better -- or at least easier to navigate -- and were turned to instruments of harm.
The poison made famous for its use in the Nazi death camps, Zyklon B, was originally a pesticide and disinfectant. Zyklon B's active ingredient is hydrogen cyanide, which was actually a failure as a chemical weapon in World War I. When Zyklon B was developed in the 1920s, it contained a warning odorant so that it would be safer to use. It became a popular method of controlling pests in citrus groves and an industrial delousing agent for clothing. U.S. immigration authorities used the chemical to de-louse the clothing of Mexican immigrants in the 1930s in the wake of a scare over the spread of typhus. Variants of the chemical are still sold in the Czech Republic.
3-D printers can print nearly anything you can imagine, including weapons.
It's been called a second industrial revolution -- the ability to print in three dimensions just about anything you need, as long as you have right design loaded into a computer. 3-D printing technology has been applied to making medical implants such as jawbones, crania and even ears. But the same technology that is used for medicine and cute Tchotchkes has been turned into a weapon. An organization called Defense Distributed posted a video of the first 3-D printed gun in May. Defense Distributed took the design files for its gun off of its website, and says it wants to comply with laws governing the sale and manufacture of guns, but it isn't hard to picture someone a lot less scrupulous putting the technology use in a bank robbery.
Two men examine a kit of dynamite and wire found during sabotage incidents of Owens Valley Aqueduct, Southern California, circa 1924.
Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, originally, as a high explosive for mining and building, making digging train tunnels suddenly much easier. Nobel's innovation was stabilizing nitroglycerin, which was dangerous to handle as it was unstable. But the ease of handling and ubiquity made dynamite a favorite weapon of the terrorists of the day, otherwise known as anarchists. One of the most famous uses in the United States was the Wall Street Bombing of 1920, which killed 38 and injured 143. But it was also used in an attempt to blow up an aqueduct in California in 1924.
The Onion Router, developed in 2002 – reroutes Internet traffic so that users are much harder to trace.
Tor, or The Onion Router, developed in 2002, reroutes Internet traffic so that users are much harder to trace; the usual digital footprints are absent. This has been a boon to many dissidents and whistleblowers, including activists in China, as well as Edward Snowden. From 2004 to 2005, the Electronic Frontier Foundation supported the Tor Project, as did the Knight Foundation. But Tor can also hide criminal activity. The Silk Road online marketplace, which the FBI shut down on Oct. 1, did a large business in drugs, and there are sites only accessible via Tor that traffic in everything from guns to child pornography.
An IBM 601 Multiplying Punch Machine from 1931.
Herman Hollerith invented the tabulating machine in 1884; it allowed the U.S. Census bureau to complete the 1890 census in a year. Prior to that, the census took eight times as long. Hollerith's invention -- punch cards that stored data -- revolutionized record-keeping and were the beginnings of modern computing, and he founded the Tabulating Machine Company, later called IBM.
In the 1930s IBM, via its German subsidiary, supplied then state-of-the-art tabulating machines to the Third Reich, which used them to compile data on German citizens. The Holocaust might have happened anyway, but the census data allowed the regime to identify Jews, Roma, and other ethnic minorities more easily, as recounted in Edwin Black's book, IBM and the Holocaust.
Men of the 12th Royal Scots wear respirators during a gas attack on a front line trench, Meteren, June 1918.
Phosgene (COCl2) started as an ingredient in dyes in the 19th century and is still an important part of the industry. It is also a crucial ingredient in the precursors to polyurethanes. In World War I it became famous as a gas weapon.
Detailed map information can provide useful information for terrorists.
Who hasn't turned to a Google Map to find an address, or to Google Earth to get a cool look at a location? That information can be useful for terrorists as well, as shown by the attacks in Mumbai in 2008, which made the Indian government consider asking Google to blur some of its images, and even prompted a lawsuit against Google. In England, thieves used Google Earth to scope out churches with lead roofs so that they could steal the metal and sell it on the black market.
Tech support people use remote access software to trouble shoot a computer remotely.
They were invented to help system administrators deal with problems. Tech support people are able to access your computer from their office without having to have your computer physically in front of them. It wasn't long before they became a favorite of malicious hackers, who, besides getting access to files, were able to take control of webcams and microphones.
This is a letter to Tom Daschle sent as part of the the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Goodman noted that the tools for "hacking" biology are no longer the province of big labs. It's possible to do synthetic biology experiments in a garage, and the cost of biological components has plummeted. Organizations like Genspace and BioCurious offer "hackerspaces" for enthusiasts.
But the ability to do biological experiments at home also means something like the 2001 anthrax attacks, which resulted in five deaths, could easily happen again. The debate over how to deal with the problem has already made itself felt with flu research. "Gain of function" studies, which are essential for designing new vaccines, could easily be turned to making a disease more virulent or contagious.
Unmanned autonomous vehicles are used to drop bombs.
Decades ago science fiction writers envisioned a future in which robots would serve people (think of Rosie from the Jetsons). At least part of that vision came true -- Roombas vacuum floors and industrial robots build everything from cars to computers. But robots also kill people -- as we've seen with drones, also known as autonomous aerial vehicles. There are active projects in the U.S. military to develop land- and sea-based autonomous weapons, and the U.N. has even called for a ban.