Privacy, failure, and hacking fears hold back ‘smart guns’
The Obama administration, saying they could reduce suicides and accidental deaths, last month renewed a push for the development and sale of “smart guns,” which use technology to prevent unauthorized users from firing them. Resistance from the National Rifle Association and others, however, could prevent them from hitting the market.
Smart guns may not prevent many mass shootings, but advocates say they could cut into the 20,000-plus gun-assisted suicides the United States counts each year, as well as limit the black market for stolen firearms.
But questions circling privacy and reliability will likely prevent them from catching on, says Jon Stokes, a gun owner and operator of hunting enthusiast site AllOutdoor.com, who in a column earlier this month called smart guns the darling of “Silicon Valley tech cognoscenti, East Coast media types, and progressive politicians from across America.”
Gun owners can already buy gun safes or mechanical trigger locks, Stokes says. “Absent a government mandate, it’s not clear to me how a person who leaves a loaded pistol in a shoebox in a closet will go to the store and select a smart gun.”
Many people say they won’t buy smart guns because they’re concerned that the added technology will give them new potential for failure, he says, noting that even the most expensive firearms sometimes misfire.
So far, fears about smart guns appear stronger than enthusiasm for them. No U.S. stores sell smart guns.
Gunmakers Colt and Smith & Wesson faced backlash from the National Rifle Association and other gun owners when they proposed smart-gun products years ago. Both companies ultimately shut down their development efforts.
“I just assume straightaway that any smart gun is going to be jailbroken, and it’s not going to prevent criminals from using it.” — Jon Stokes, gun owner and operator of hunting enthusiast site AllOutdoor.com
Similarly, after German company Armatix introduced its .22-caliber iP1 handgun in 2011, some gun owners harassed and threatened retailers in California and Maryland that planned to sell it. The retailers reversed course.
Margot Hirsch, president of the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation, says fears of technological complexity seem odd in a society that rushes to buy the latest gizmos. Consumers should be able to “decide for themselves whether they want this technology,” says Hirsch, whose foundation funds smart-gun projects.
Beyond the addition of technological complexities, gun owners are voicing concerns about smart guns getting hacked and tracked, Stokes of AllOutdoor.com says. Last year, security researchers Runa Sandvik and Michael Auger demonstrated how to hack into a Tracking Point TP750 “smart” scope and change the trajectory of the sniper rifle’s bullets.
“I just assume straightaway that any smart gun is going to be jailbroken, and it’s not going to prevent criminals from using it,” Stokes says. “I can’t imagine that this [technology] wouldn’t eventually be turned against its users.”
Some smart-gun technology uses RFID to connect a ring or a wristwatch to the firearm. Other technology uses biometric identification such as fingerprints. Stokes worries that such technologies would ultimately enable people to either shut down the firearms or target their owners.
“I don’t want anyone to drive by my house and pick up the signature of a weapon,” he says. “I don’t want to make myself a target.”
“The person who’s breaking into your home is probably going to be more interested in your television set and your jewelry than in hacking your gun.” — Margot Hirsch, president of the Smart Tech Challenges Founation
Smart-gun champions such as Hirsch say fears about the technology are overblown. With an estimated 1.7 million loaded and unsecured handguns in U.S. homes, she says, the need for new gun safety tools is obvious.
Smart guns, but not Internet connected
Most of the projects funded by the Smart Tech Challenges Foundation are smart trigger locks that don’t add new technology to a firearm itself, she says. They don’t include GPS or networking technology that would allow the devices to be tracked.
The foundation advocates for rigorous testing of smart-gun products before they’re released, and Obama’s push for smart-gun R&D spending should add to reliability, Hirsch says.
The point is to make it much harder for unauthorized people to fire guns, she says. “The person who’s breaking into your home is probably going to be more interested in your television set and your jewelry than in hacking your gun,” Hirsch says. “They’re going to go get another gun. They’re going to toss that one because they’re not going to invest the time to hack a specific gun.”
Hirsch’s foundation is supporting companies like Sentinl, maker of the Identilock smart trigger lock, which attaches to handguns and releases through a fingerprint scan.
Identilock, which the company plans to ship this summer, generated buzz at last month’s Consumer Electronics Show. Preorders for the product have exceeded expectations, says Sentinl founder Omer Kiyani, a former automobile airbag engineer.
“There is no doubt in my mind, or my investors’ minds, that there is a huge market for what we’re doing,” he says.
Kiyani discounts concerns about technological complexity. “I have not integrated electronics into a gun,” he says. “Identilock is not designed for when a firearm is in use, but when it’s stored.”
Kiyani and most people on his team, he says, are gun owners who feel a need for an additional layer of safety. “I’m a parent, and want to make sure I can keep my family secure,” he says, with and from the firearm.