Last week President Obama directed several federal government agencies to conduct or sponsor research into smartgun technology. For a FAQ about smartguns please see my article entitled Smartguns: What You Need to Know.
I am often asked about the technical shortcomings of today's smartguns, and why, if smartguns are supposed to be safer than conventional weapons, are no law enforcement agencies willing to utilize them?
Here are 14 points to consider. Please note that this article focuses on the risks created by embedding computers into weapons; I will leave the debate over gun control laws to others.
1. Smartguns may have insufficient power. In order to address the issue of potential damage to sensitive electronics from the force generated from firing a weapon, various smartgun models exist only in .22 caliber--meaning that they fire only small bullets that are generally considered unsuitable for law enforcement use or home/self defense. For smartguns to be accepted they must be able to fire much larger rounds without damaging their electronics in the process.
2. Smartguns contain specialized computers within them--and, computers occasionally malfunction. How many of us have had our smartphone or computer crash at least once in the last year? Guns are often needed in life and death situations--and a murderer or rapist is not going to wait for his or her intended victim's gun to reboot or be reset.
3. The computers inside smartguns require a power source; without electricity the guns cannot be fired. That creates a risk that does not exist with conventional firearms - what if someone forgot to change batteries or to charge the weapon and then found himself or herself facing a home intruder? What if someone's home is being robbed after a prolonged blackout following a natural disaster? What if someone in a life and death situation discovers that his or her weapon's aging rechargeable battery has lost its capacity to hold a full charge?
4. Smartguns may fail in extreme weather - exposure to heat, cold, and water are all concerns. Can smartguns remain reliable if carried outdoors by police officers during torrential downpours, during the harsh winters in much of the northern United States, or during the summers in portions of the South?
5. Firearms must be able to be disassembled in order to be cleaned and maintained, making it impossible to seal the devices in a way that would prevent gun thieves - or teens intent on shooting people in school - from accessing their components. One of the basic principles of information security is that someone who has physical access to a device can potentially undermine its security - which raises questions about how smartgun manufacturers will produce smartguns whose electronics cannot be circumvented by making simple modifications to the easily disassembled gun.
6. Gun management becomes much more complex and prone to dangerous errors. In an emergency situation, a police officer may need to utilize another officer's gun - meaning that a police department or military unit deploying smartguns would need to establish mechanisms to establish, track, and update its various firearms' authentication information on a regular basis. Furthermore, if centralized systems are utilized, there is a risk that hackers could potentially target the system and cause police firearms to fail at critical times.
7. Biometric authentication takes time to process - and an extra second or two is something that people in life and death situations do not always have. Sometimes repeated attempts are required to successfully authenticate - a problem that simply is unacceptable when it comes to weapons.
8. Crooks might be able to easily undermine smartgun fingerprint authentication. Some smartgun prototypes use fingerprints to authenticate users, but how hard would it be for a crook who stole a gun that relied on fingerprint authentication to lift the necessary fingerprints from the weapon? Hasn't the gun's legitimate owner likely deposited his or her prints all over the device by handling it? This type of problem has been seen with regard to fingerprint-locked cellphones. Advanced fingerprint readers can help reduce the risks of undermining fingerprint authentication with lifted prints - but such readers sometimes take longer to read and process prints which creates other issues when you are talking about a device used in life and death situations.
9. Biometric checks may fail when people are in life and death situations as adrenalin flows and they sweat profusely, shake, or grip far tighter than they normally would - never mind the odds of problems happening if the authorized person holding the gun has been injured or is bleeding from his or her hands.
10. Any smartgun that relies on wireless communications--such as one that checks for a particular bracelet, watch, smartphone, holster, or key fob--may be susceptible to jamming by the government, hackers, or criminals. (The use of magnetic induction based communications might reduce this risk, but it does not eliminate it.)
11. Smartguns may be succeptible to tracking and jamming. Could the government demand that manufacturers surreptitiously include in smartguns some circuitry that would allow law enforcement to track or to disable the weapons? Could it get someone "on the inside" at a manufacturing facility to create such backdoors in the gun's embedded software? (If you think that this sounds paranoid consider that the malware into computers and backdoors into security devices.)
12. Smartguns that authenticate users based on proximity may not prevent a criminal from shooting at point blank an authorized owner from whom the gun was grabbed. This is a serious concern for both civilians and law enforcement officers.
13. Smartguns that require PINs to be entered in order to activate and fire the weapons increase the odds that a legitimate user will be unable to use the weapon in case of an emergency. How well do people enter PIN numbers when they are in a panic and fearing for their lives?
14. Smartguns that emit a wireless signal allow criminals (and police) to identify who is carrying a weapon. Such a reality undermines one of the reasons that some states require people to carry their weapons concealed; if all civilian-carried guns are concealed criminals do not know who is carrying and who is not, so they have to fear mugging everyone, which protects the unarmed as well as the armed.
Of course, like anything else gun related, there are also political issues related to smartguns as I discussed in this primer on smartguns.
I am certain that if the free market is allowed to function without government interference, newer technologies will be created that will alleviate many of the aforementioned concerns. Kai Kloepfer, who has been working on building a smartgun since he created an early prototype as a student project, told me, for example, that he now has a smartgun prototype that can authenticate fingerprints in about the same amount of time that it takes to draw a gun from a holster and aim it - a sign that sufficiently fast fingerprint authentication is probably not that far away. I am sure we will soon also see greater use of advanced fingerprint readers that map out human capillaries in three dimensions and are not impacted by sweat nor able to be tricked with lifted fingerprints, and faster processors that can process fingerprint authentication attempts in a fraction of the time it takes to do so today.
Alarms that warn people about low power and holsters that recharge guns while being carried and warn about aging batteries may reduce concerns about power. I am sure that some of the other issues discussed above will also be reduced or eliminated over time. Of course, tradeoffs will remain - but I suspect that when smartguns improve to the point that law enforcement agencies regularly purchase and issue them to their agents, many people will be willing to live with some of the drawbacks in order to benefit from the improved safety that smartguns promise to deliver. Which is why while I do not believe the current crop of smartguns are ready for prime time, I support research and development in this area - if the government lets the free market work as it should, eventually we will have smartguns about which even James Bond would be proud.