Concealed Carry & Home Defense

CCW Weekend: Magnet Outsmarts Smart Gun

By Sam Hoober, Alien Gear Holsters

A possible high-tech solution to some aspects of the supposed “gun problem” is smart guns, or in other words firearms that have electronic or other advanced control features that only allow operation for select users.

The smart gun concept has even been in the movies a few of times. In “Skyfall” James Bond had a smart PPK/S coded to his palmprint. In the 2012 film “Dredd” – the second “Judge Dredd” movie starring Karl Urban – the Lawgiver pistol issued to Judges has a similar security system. If a bad person steals the pistol and tries to use it, the gun explodes. Incidentally, it’s far better than the one starring Stallone, but then again, so is a root canal.

Palmprint recognition would certainly be a good feature for police. It would also be fantastic for civilian gun owners concerned about safety, whether it resides in a safe or in a concealed carry holster.

On paper the smart gun idea is a good idea. In the real world they don’t work.

Recently, a hacker calling himself “Plore” gave a demonstration to Wired magazine about how easy it was to hack the Armatix iP1, one of the leading examples of “smart” guns on the market.

How the iP1 works in mechanical terms is by means of several concurrent mechanisms. First, a watch that comes with the pistol generates a short-range radio signal by means of an RFID chip that’s activated by the user. Second, the grip safety acts as the on/off switch; you need to depress the grip safety to turn the pistol on and activate the receiver, which picks up the watch signal. Lastly, there’s an electromagnet in the trigger group. When the grip safety is depressed, and receives the signal from the watch, the electromagnet attracts and thus lowers the firing pin block.

At this point, the iP1 – one of the few “smart guns” on the market – is then able to fire.

Plore has an engineering and security background and was able to find three ways to interfere with the mechanism. First, he discovered the frequency generated by the watch and the pistol.

He put together some cheap transmitters (each costing about $20 in parts) that transmitted the same frequency. They could be used to activate the pistol without the watch, or to jam the pistol while the watch was being worn as the signal generated by the watch is rather weak; if the same frequency of radio signal is generated anywhere near it, the gun wouldn’t work.

Next, by using a few dollars worth of magnets, he was able to drop the firing pin without the watch or any electronic devices of any kind.

Granted, “Plore” has several thousand dollars in equipment thanks to his vocation that the typical person wouldn’t even know how to get that allowed him to discover the frequencies generated by the gun. He also has more technical education and knowledge than a lot of people, but then again security measures of the iP1 aren’t exactly super complicated.

Granted, this isn’t anything new. The first “smart guns” were devised in the 1990s, with Colt and Mossberg being among the first, according to Mother Jones, both using nearly the same technology as Armatix, namely an RFID transmitter/receiver. Mossberg’s system, which they dubbed iGun, is still in development and testing; the iGun website is up and running to this day.

The two competing designs of “smart gun” security devices are RFID designs and thumbprint recognition devices. Both could work, in theory, but both have major weaknesses.

As Prole demonstrated, RFID devices can be hacked with some basic electronics. The issue with thumbprint recognition is that biometric scanners require a good print read to work. Under ideal conditions, that’s easy, but when a person’s hands are sweaty or otherwise wet, shaking or the gun is handled in a hurry…a good print read isn’t necessarily going to happen.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, that is a problem some people have with biometric safes.

Until a better system is devised, smart guns are going to remain the stuff of science fiction. It’s a wonderful idea on paper – a gun only usable by authorized personnel – but in the real world they could get a civilian carrier or police officer killed in the moment of truth.

For now, if you’re concerned with safety, just buy a safe already. A lockbox atop a closet shelf or a securely locked gun cabinet goes a long way.

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Sam Hoober is Contributing Editor for AlienGearHolsters.com, a subsidiary of Hayden, ID, based Tedder Industries, where he writes about gun accessories, gun safety, open and concealed carry tips. Click here to visit aliengearholsters.com.