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benveniste

July 2017

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[personal profile] benveniste
First a caution. I'm not offering any opinions on "gun control" or 2nd amendment rights here. If you want to discuss those issues, find another soapbox.

As part of this week's "Now is the time" executive actions, the White House released a memorandum entitled "Memorandum -- Promoting Smart Gun Technology" The concept of a "smart gun" seems great in theory. It could prevent some of the hundreds of accidental gun deaths which happen each year and might even deter gun theft. The reality might be quite different. People who are far more knowledgeable on this subject than I believe that such technologies can never work. I'm not quite that pessimistic, but there are some real challenges.

The first part of the challenge is authentication. For now, I'm going to waive away the paired concept of authorization, and simply assume that if the "smart" weapon knows who you are, you will have access to all of its functions. There are three reasonable authentication approaches for a weapon.
  • Something you have, such as a key to your car.
  • Something you know, such as a password
  • Something you are, such as a fingerprint or retina scan.
The Armatix iP1, a .22 calibre handgun on sale in Europe, uses the first approach. For "smart" operation, it must be within 10" of a somewhat ugly watch. There are a few problems with such an approach. The first is that since it operates via RFID, it can be jammed. In fact, the patent for this gun includes external "kill switch" capability. As we've seen last year's hackable car recall, people would be justifiably reluctant to embrace a "hackable gun." The second is that the watch is a weak point. It can be lost, forgotten, or damaged. Finally, since users are likely to store the gun with the watch, it offers little protection against theft.

The "what you know" approach suffers from a different failure mode. How many times have you mistyped a password when someone was watching? Now imagine trying to remember "correct horse battery staple" while under a real or imagined deadly threat. Waiting for a password reset email isn't exactly an option. Another challenge, of course, is communicating what you know to the weapon. Keypads and dials don't fit very well on a handguns. As for speech recognition, ever use Siri? Now imagine using Siri in an uncontrolled environment under stress. No thanks. Finally, we also know from real life how careless people are with passwords. So don't be surprised when people engrave their password on their gun or holster.

So that leaves biometrics, aka "something you are." I have a fingerprint reader on both my iPhone and my work laptop. Both work "okay," most of the time, say about as well as speaking a credit card number into a telephone. Still, compared to the fingerprint readers I used a few years ago it's a big improvement.

All three approaches share further challenges. The part of the system inside the firearm is subject to stress from shock, heat, and the environment. It should be able to work reliably after months or years of inactivity, or else "dead" may not just describe the battery.

But despite all of this doom and gloom, I'm not ready to give up on smart gun technology quite yet. However, President Obama's won't get the job done by itself. Government research grants and vague references to "take appropriate steps to consider whether including such technology in specifications for acquisition of firearms would be consistent with operational needs" is not enough. There has to be real profit motive to justify a risky investment. It also has to be able to "win" in a fair market fight. Sales of the Armatix iP1 outside the U.S. have been dismal, in part because it's only available in .22 long, in part because it's not a very well designed handgun, but mainly because it costs about 3-4 times what a "dumb" .22 handgun costs. The company filed for the German equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid 2015.

I'm convinced that there are gun owners who would prefer a personalized weapon and might even be willing to pay extra for one, but not that sort of multiple for something with little or no real world track record. And no matter how good the technology, some gun owners will never trust it. One of the reasons revolvers still sell today is the belief that they always work. If you try to force "smart guns" on everyone, they will find ways to defeat the interlock, or simply keep using their current firearms.

So for a "fair fight" to occur, the first thing which has to happen is for New Jersey to unconditionally repeal it's smart gun law. This ill-thought out piece of legislation mandates the technology by banning "dumb" handgun sales 3 years after the "Attorney General shall deem that personalized handguns are available for retail sales purposes." Rather than encouraging development of these technologies, it's raised a huge barrier to their introduction. It's time for the New Jersey legislature to recognize that the "stick" approach didn't work and unconditionally repeal the law rather than trying to salvage small political points. "Carrots," such as those hinted at by President Obama can come later.
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