Smart-gun advocates: Don’t worry about hacked firearms

One of the creators behind a hacked smart gun says he's learned his lesson. Now he wants more hackers to test the safety features on the weapons.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
4 min read
A panel of smart-gun experts discussing the future of the high-tech firearms at the Smart Gun Symposium in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

A panel of smart-gun experts discussing the future of the high-tech firearms at the Smart Gun Symposium in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.

Washington Ceasefire

Even after a hacker at Defcon showed that smart guns aren't all that smart, advocates for new firearm technology aren't worried.

At the Smart Gun Symposium in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, supporters discussed how upgrading firearms with gun-locking features like fingerprint scanners and radio-frequency identification tags could help protect police and prevent shootings. They also dismissed concerns that hackers could find ways to trick the features.

Smart guns are seen as one way to stem the tide of violence that's risen over the last decade, with more than 360 mass shootings in the US during 2016. Silicon Valley believes it can help through high-tech weapons with triggers that won't pull in the wrong hands, or that employ a radio signaled lock. After the San Bernardino, California, mass shooting in 2015, then-president Barack Obama called for a federal study on smart-gun technology in the hopes that it would improve firearm safety standards.

Like all connected devices though, smart guns aren't immune to hacks. At the Defcon security conference last week, a hacker who goes by the name of "Plore" demonstrated how he tricked the Armatix IP1 -- a smart pistol that locks unless it's near a watch with the proper radio signal -- using only $15 worth of magnets.

At the symposium, two smart-gun makers played down the threat of hacks against the connected weapons, calling it a "nuisance" but not a roadblock.

Jonathan Mossberg, the man behind the smart iGun, said the attacks Plore demonstrated were unlikely to happen in real-life scenarios, pointing out that people don't carry magnets with them everywhere.

Plore disagreed, saying there'd be more magnets available if smart guns were more mainstream.

"If there were a bunch of smart guns out there, there might be a reason for criminals to carry magnets," the hacker said in a phone interview. "It's a failure of imagination to see the potential downfalls of an insecure system."


A hacker named Plore foiled the security features on the Armatix IP1 smart gun using only a simple set of magnets.


Ernst Mauch, who led the team that designed the IP1, acknowledged that the smart gun he helped design was hacked by simple magnets and said he's looking to have more-robust security for his futuristic firearms. He said that though hackers breaking into smart guns weren't a "significant challenge," gun makers shouldn't be relaxed when it comes to security.

For future projects, Mauch said, he'll be inviting hackers to crack firearm safety features, in the same way companies like Tesla offer cash bounties to any hackers who can find flaws with their products.

"We learned our lesson with the IP1," Mauch said.

Safety and reliability are key issues when it comes to the potential for widespread adoption of high-tech firearms. Nearly 60 percent of police officers told the symposium they'd be interested in using smart guns, once the weapons prove reliable from a security and effectiveness perspective.

That has yet to happen. And though an absolute fail-safe against hacking may not be in the cards, there's still a lot that can be done, said Ralph Fascitelli, board president of gun-safety group Washington CeaseFire.

"There's no way you're going to have 100 percent protection against hacking," Fascitelli said. "But you can make it so impractical that it wouldn't be realistic."

Plore sees smart guns going through the same sort of growing pains that are being experienced by Internet of Things devices, with people, including members of Congress, just starting to pay attention to security. IoT devices have been notoriously bad at repelling hackers as makers ignore the security aspects of these single-purpose gadgets. But the difference between a smart toaster getting hacked and a smart gun getting hacked could mean life or death.

When he set out to hack the IP1, Plore said, he expected more of a challenge than putting a magnet on the gun. He knew he could hack the smart gun, but not this easily.

"The expectation is that it should be difficult for a child to mount an attack ... it should be at a level that would require a skilled attack," Plore said. "Magnets on the side are not a skilled attack. That's a dumb attack."

Smart-gun makers are very aware their guns can be hacked, Fascitelli said. But, he said, to make sure no glaring security flaws make it to the public, gun makers are going to have to raise their standards.

"I think there's a growing realization: Let's stop f***ing around," Fascitelli said. "Smart-gun development is not a science fair."

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