October 22, 2017

Smart Guns: You Can’t Fix Stupid

The Armitix iP1 credit: armitix
The Armatix iP1
credit: armatix

I have written about so-called “smart gun” technology from time to time. I’ve taken to the keyboard whenever someone thought they’d invented the holy grail of such guns, whenever a legislator was trying to mandate them, or whenever a leftist reporter (I know: redundant) was wailing about the evil NRA and gun bloggers who are the only entities keeping the near-holy benefits of smart guns from us all, because the NRA–and gun bloggers, of course–wants to kill all the children! PJ Media was kind enough to print one of those articles back in August of 2013.

I next addressed smart guns, which are actually provably dumb, in February of 2014 with the introduction of the Armatix iP1, a .22LR semiautomatic gun/watch combination. Manufactured by a German company which, in 2015, filed for bankruptcy, the weapon used a radio transmitter/receiver system. A receiver, embedded in the weapon, received a transmission from the watch, but a complex input system, involving the pressing of several buttons and the inputting of at least a four-digit PIN code, made operations under stress somewhat demanding. Without the watch, the $1400 dollars–in 2014–gun was supposedly useless, and the watch cost $400 dollars. Compared with several successful and reliable .22LR handguns already on the market, such as the Walther P22 and the Ruger SR22, both of which retailed in the $350 dollar range in 2014, the iP1 was not exactly burning up the firearm market.

Its supposedly revolutionary and foolproof systems weren’t, as I noted:

“With a transmission range of 1up to 10 inches,’ the uninitiated might assume this is an entirely safe gun, unable to be used by unauthorized persons and unable to be used against its owner.  Not so.  This is just a partial list of the potential problems:

(1) Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) is a serious issue, and with the widespread proliferation of cellphone, it’s non-trivial.  Nearby radio energy sources can easily render such weapons inert or reception can be intermittent.

(2) Any radio signal can be intercepted, analyzed and sent back as a jamming signal.

(3) Government would surely love to know the frequencies of such weapons–would demand to have that data–and could therefore simply render citizen’s weapons inert at will.

(4) As long as the weapon is within 10 inches of the watch, whether it is on the wrist of the intended wearer or not, the gun will fire.

(5) If the PIN code isn’t entered, the gun is useless, and as I’ve explained, entering it appears to be a lengthy and non-trivial exercise.

(6) If the watch is misplaced, lost or damaged, or its battery is dead, the gun is a paperweight.

(7) The owner can’t shoot the weapon with their weak hand unless they keep the watch within 10 inches (“up to 10 inches,” which suggests the range is less under most conditions).

(8) All batteries fail in the cold, and any battery-powered device will fail.  With devices like TV remotes, this is an annoyance.  With a handgun, it could be deadly.  Armatix claims batteries will last up to a year, but does not specify under what conditions.  Obviously, the more the weapon is used and activated, the more rapidly the batteries will drain.  Radio transmitter/receivers use a great deal of battery power.”

I ended that article thus:

“There are many additional potential problems with such devices.  Handguns are useful because they are relatively simple, affordable devices that do a specific, limited job for a wide range of people to a very high degree of reliability under all imaginable conditions.  The iP1–and all similar weapons being developed–are complex, unaffordable devices displaying reliability that is at best, unknown, and that absolutely will fail under many known and common conditions.  Mandating such weapons would have the effect of disarming most citizens–which is precisely what the gun banners want; safety has nothing to do with it–and making the work of violent predators much, much safer and easier.

Absent more specific information, the iP1 appears to be nothing more than a niche product that will appeal to only a tiny–and wealthy–portion of the gun-owning public.  Anything that will disarm the law-abiding is, of course, appealing to a certain class of politician.

Col. Cooper was right.  This is an ingenious–and very expensive–solution to a nonexistent problem.”

I addressed the issue again in December of 2016 when then-President Barack Obama (it’s so good to say “then-president Barack Obama, isn’t it?) was trying to push smart gun legislation, and Joe Nocera of the New York Times was accusing anyone opposing Mr. Obama of wanting to kill all the children, and pretty much everyone else, just for fun. This passage from that article is particularly pertinent to this article:

“Radio frequency interference problems, particularly since the widespread use of cell phones, are significant. And, as with magnetic technologies, criminals can use the weapons simply by stealing the gun and transmitter–which criminals tend to do, being criminals–or by scanning for and spoofing the correct frequencies, enabling, or jamming, signals. Such technology is cheap and readily available.”

Also pertinent is the 2012 James Bond movie, Skyfall, where Bond was gifted with a Walther PPK smart gun that somehow “read” his biometrics, presumably through his hand’s contact with a rather large, non-standard grip–the movie never explained. The movie caused smart-gun proponents to exclaim “ah-hah! If it’s good enough for James Bond, why isn’t it mandated for everyone?!”

They gleefully pointed out the scene where a bad guy got Bond’s gun and was tried unsuccessfully to shoot him, distracting him long enough for a huge, Komodo Dragon-like lizard to eat him. Rack one up for giant lizards and smart guns!

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Unfortunately, the smart gun set don’t realize–or care–viable smart gun technology exists only in the movies, and actually, not even there. In a later scene, Bond is gripping his Walter while wearing gloves, presumably disarming himself. And in yet another scene, Bond manages to grab a bad guy’s gun and shoot a brace of cutthroats about to kill him. If that had been a functional smart gun, and there were no bad guy-eating giant lizards around, Bond would have been killed, and so would the Bond film franchise. Fortunately, Bond didn’t die, and Daniel Craig has reportedly signed to do a fifth Bond film, this time, hopefully, without such dense hardware.

I write today because a “skilled hacker” has managed, with little expense and effort, to hack the Armatix iP1, in precisely the ways I suggested in those two prior articles. Wired.com reports:

“I was confident I’d be able to break it,’ says Plore, who has a day job as a hardware-focused engineer and security consultant. ‘I didn’t think it would be so easy.” [skip]

‘In fact, before he found his dead-simple magnet hack, Plore tried a far more technical approach known as a “relay” attack. That involved building two small radio gadgets, each no larger than a pack of cards and costing about $20 in hardware.

The relay attack takes advantage of the gun’s radio-based safety mechanism. When the shooter squeezes the gun’s handle, it sends out an RFID signal to check if the watch is present. But Plore showed he could place one of his radio devices near the watch to intercept the signal, and relay it to another gadget as far as 12 feet away. That means the gun doesn’t need to be next to the shooter’s wrist, as intended, but can instead be held by someone else, breaking its tight identity restrictions.”

In my previous articles, I noted that radio frequency interferences is a significant problem with radio-based smart guns, and they can also be jammed by radio. Plore explored those attacks as well:

“Plore also developed a technique that doesn’t defeat the gun’s authentication, but instead hijacks those security mechanisms to render the weapon altogether useless. He built a $20 transmitter device that simply emits radio waves at roughly the same 900 megahertz frequency as the gun and watch, overwhelming their communications. From as far as 10 to 15 feet away, the handheld transmitter can reliably jam the gun no matter how close it is to the owner’s watch. [skip]

An assailant who knew his intended victim carried an Armatix handgun could, then, simply use the transmitter to disarm him or her. But Plore warns that even a nearby cordless phone could trigger the interference. ‘Imagine your gun won’t fire because somebody’s grandmother is blabbing on a cordless phone,’ Plore says.

Those that understand firearms technology and the Second Amendment have no difficulty imagining that. Those that want to disarm the law-abiding, not so much.

“After developing those two more technical radio attacks, Plore dug into Armatix’s patent diagrams. There, he found that when the watch’s radio signal authorizes the gun to fire, an electromagnet moves a small metal plug to unlock its firing pin. So Plore ordered a $15 stack of magnets from Amazon. He found that by placing them next to the gun’s body at a certain angle, he could immediately fire at will, with no watch in sight.

When the gun first fired without authentication, ‘I almost didn’t believe it had actually worked. I had to fire it again,’ Plore remembers. ‘And that’s how I found out for $15 of materials you can defeat the security of this $1,500 smart gun.”

Plore contacted Armatix about his findings, and they replied, essentially, “SSSSSHHH!” Take the link, if you wish, and see, but be aware the Wired link failed several times when I attempted to use it, though it did ultimately work. One can always paste a quote from the article into the URL box and find it that way if necessary.

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Wired suggests a few tech fixes for the iP1, but Armatix may well be out of business after its 2015 bankruptcy. After articles like mine about it, most American dealers chose not to stock the handgun, which was, of course, blamed on the NRA and gun bloggers who want to kill all the children. More likely was the fact the gun/watch cost $1800 2014 dollars, and was produced only in .22LR, which is not at all an appropriate caliber for self-defense. Not only that, one can buy far better pistols for target practice and hunting with the ubiquitous .22LR for a fraction of the price.

Ultimately, the iP1 could not succeed in the free marketplace without government mandates because it was far too expensive, of unknown, and likely, reliability, and made in the wrong caliber. Perhaps the most significant factor killing smart guns, past, present, and future, is there is no technical way around the fact that the gun’s owners might very well, in a variety of easily imagined scenarios, want someone else to be able to fire their gun. Smart guns remain a brilliant solution to a non-existent problem.