‘Hackers can disable sniper rifles’ … no, it’s not Rise of the Machines

Technology website Wired is reporting that hackers can disable sniper rifles or even aim them at something the operator doesn’t intend to hit. This makes excellent copy but skates over the hard truth that these “sniper rifles” are just ordinary rifles fitted with an electronic telescope and a firing solenoid instead of a mechanical trigger. Moreover, there are few of these rifles in circulation because no organisation yet trusts the technology – and with good reason.

Rifles are dumb mechanical objects built to launch a projectile onto a defined mark. TrackingPoint, the company whose technology is at the heart of the Wired feature (available here), wants to put smart technology onto a dumb rifle that would allow Average Joe to score a first-round hit at distances of up to a mile. This would let militaries and law enforcements skip long, expensive and resource-intensive marksmanship training; an obvious winner from the financial point of view.

Wired’s journalism here is great; they’ve been following the TrackingPoint saga for ages. But to blindly repeat “omg, sniper rifles can be hacked now, we’re all doomed” is just to run around crying wolf. As Runa Sandvik, one of the two hackers, said to Wired, “If the scope is bricked, you have a six to seven thousand dollar computer you can’t use on top of a rifle that you still have to aim yourself.”

The threat to public safety is minimal. TrackingPoint claims to have sold 1,000 rifles fitted with its system, although there is no immediate way of verifying what is, after all, a marketing claim. All companies boast about how popular their wares are and TrackingPoint is going to be no different.

Moreover, they’re bloody silly when it comes to basic information security principles. Who puts an unsecured Wi-Fi connection onto a critical piece of hardware? What idiot sends a critical patch “out to customers as a USB drive”? That goes against every piece of common sense advice issued by reputable infosec firms.

Various pressure groups – most with an ulterior motive in mind – have pushed for smart technology to be introduced into firearms for years. It’s never caught on because it introduces a critical point of failure with no easily repairable solution. A few years ago Morini sold a .22 long-barrelled pistol in the UK which was fitted with an electronic trigger switch. The idea was you could turn your trigger “off” for dry firing and for security when not in use. It was little more than a gimmick.

As ever, the only cause of concern around firearms is when someone stupid gets hold of one. Technology just isn’t something we need to worry about.

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