Joseph Steinberg of Forbes Magazine gets it right on smart guns

Joseph Steinberg of Forbes Magazine, and the editors therein, clearly “get it.”  In his recent article, “Why You Should Be Concerned About The New ‘Smart Guns’ Whether You Love Or Hate Guns,” Steinberg lays out issues brought to the table by Smart Gun technology. The issues are not to be dismissed.

“1. Electronic devices require a power source, and smart guns are no exception. Without electricity they cannot be fired. Someone intent on using a firearm for home defense could find herself in serious danger if she drew a weapon on an armed intruder only to find that its batteries are drained. In general, it is not ideal to add a requirement for power to devices utilized in cases of emergency that did not need electricity previously. How many fire codes allow fire extinguishers that require a battery to operate? Before smartguns can be deemed reliable, therefore, they must incorporate countermeasures to address this issue. Simply warning users of low batteries may be insufficient, as many gun owners who do not carry their weapons with them keep their guns locked up, do not check them regularly, and might not see such warnings until it is too late.

2. Computers malfunction, and authentication technology is not perfect. Lawfully armed citizens protecting themselves and/or their families could be killed if their weapons malfunction during a home invasion or attempted rape. While some have argued that conventional semi-automatic handguns also periodically jam, smartguns add a whole new dimension of failure possibilities. Furthermore, technical problems typically take far longer to correct than firearm failures: trained users can often unjam a semi-automatic in a matter of seconds, but even experts cannot normally hard-reboot a malfunctioning piece of electronics that fast. One shudders to consider the possible tragedy if a policeman had to reboot his handgun, or had problems authenticating, during an altercation with an active shooter.

3. At least one smartgun that has entered the marketplace requires the owner to wear a special watch; the gun will only fire if it is within a short distance of the watch. While such a scheme may afford some level of protection in certain scenarios, it might do little in others; the “watch approach” would seemingly not prevent a criminal from grabbing someone’s weapon and shooting him at point blank range (as long as the gun was always near the watch), or stop a crook from stealing both the watch and the gun. Requiring a user to possess two items instead of just one is generally, not on its own, considered a major improvement to authentication. Requiring a PIN number to be entered on the watch in order to fire the gun addresses that issue – but, also introduces a risk that the legitimate user will be unable to quickly use the weapon in case of an emergency. How well do people enter PIN numbers when they are under the extreme stress of fearing for their lives? What happens if during an emergency situation a policewoman needs to use another officer’s gun?

4. Some upcoming smartgun models use biometrics to authenticate users, but biometrics take time to process and are often inaccurate – especially when a user is under duress – as is likely going to be the case in any situation in which he needs to brandish a gun. Furthermore, fingerprint readers and other forms of biometric analyzers are prone to error when people sweat profusely, shake, or are bloodied. Failures to authenticate legitimate users could lead to innocent people being killed when defending their families. Of course, there is also concern that if a crook stole a gun that relied on fingerprint authentication he might be able to lift the necessary fingerprints from all over the weapon, a problem that I described in an earlier article with regard to fingerprint-based smartphone authentication.

5. As I described in another previous article, smartguns may be susceptible to government tracking or jamming. How hard would it be for the government to require manufacturers to surreptitiously include in computer-enhanced weapons some circuitry that would allow law enforcement to track – or even to disable – the weapons? Before dismissing such a fear as silly paranoia, consider that the US government is alleged to have secretly installed malware onto thousands of networks and placed spy chips into computers, it has admitted to spying on its own citizens, is believed to have prohibited technology companies from divulging its spying on US citizens, and is known to have lost track of weapons whose locations it intended to monitor. Should private citizens really be confident that such a government will not want to keep tabs on their guns? Are firearms really less worthy of being tracked than telephone records? (While tracking devices could theoretically be placed in non-smart weapons for short term tracking or for tracking at specific locations, the power source included on smart weapons enables much more robust tracking.)

6. Smartguns might be hackable! Even without embedded tracking or jamming technology, smart guns that rely on radio-frequency (i.e., wireless) transmissions – like the aforementioned gun-watch pair, for example – might be susceptible to remote jamming – not something that a law enforcement officer or law-abiding citizen would want to find out when a thug is threatening her with a weapon equipped with a jammer atop. Governments might gain the ability to disable people’s private weapons, and criminals might gain the ability to do so to police service weapons.

7. Any feature that prevents a gun from firing at anything that is not a specialized target – a feature some new “smart guns” are supposed to offer – might make the gun safer for home storage, but clearly eliminates a person’s ability to rely on it for self defense.

8. In some situations, smart guns could worsen gun safety. When incomplete safety features are introduced with fanfare, people have a habit of relying on them, creating a human vulnerability that leads to accidents. We see this in the information security world all the time: How people have downloaded software/games/music from unknown parties because they rely on anti-virus software to keep them safe? Likewise, when it comes to guns, haven’t we heard stories of firearm accidents that occurred when someone thought (and relied on the fact that) a “safety switch” was engaged when it was not? It remains to be seen as to whether people who have been told that smart guns cannot be fired by unauthorized parties rely on that promise and store, transport, or hold them in unsafe ways in which they would never even consider doing with a conventional firearm. Introducing safety features is smart only if the features either truly work 100% of the time, or if people are thoroughly conditioned not to rely on them – which is not going to happen if popular media outlets continue to portray smartguns as perfect, James Bond-like weapons.

9. Sometimes firearms need to be used by others. It is problematic, for example, for a policeman not to be able to fire his partner’s weapon if necessary. This means that the process of configuring smartguns in a law enforcement or military environment may not be simple – with the need for frequent updates to individual weapons creating possibilities of dangerous, if not deadly, errors. Enterprises use robust device management systems for a reason – and they do so even for objects far less dangerous than guns.

10. Firearms must be able to be disassembled in order to be cleaned and maintained. One of the principles of information security is that someone who has physical access to a machine can undermine its security. Smartgun manufacturers need to show evidence that criminals who steal smartguns cannot modify them to work with the smart technology removed or disabled (or that preventing any components from being accessed that are accessible in conventional weapons will not impact the durability of the weapons).”

You can read the rest of his article here. None of these issues are news to those of us who have had to use guns in defense of ourselves or others. But not everyone understands that adding technology is not always the answer to all problems. Then again, we’re talking about politicians making policy and that’s not exactly a bastion of common sense or logic.


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