For those of you keeping track, you can add high-tech sniper rifles to the growing list of Things That Can be Hacked. The vulnerability that allowed two security researchers to break into the computer guidance system of a sniper rifle is the same that allows hackers to access baby monitors and home routers. Simply put, the default Wi-Fi password, which was locked by the manufacturer, allowed anyone within range to connect. The typical range is up to 150 feet (46 m) indoors and 300 feet (92 m) outdoors.
In advance of the Black Hat conference this month, security researchers Runa Sandvik and Michael Auger, have demonstrated that they can hack TrackingPoint precision-guided firearms.
The TrackingPoint rifles can make a sharpshooter out of a novice. This is thanks to the computer-aided sensors including gyroscopes and accelerometers which take into account all the factors that a sniper scout would look for; wind, speed of the target, distance, snipers orientation, ammunition caliber, even curvature of the earth.
I asked Steve Ashe, a veteran of Desert Storm and Desert Shield, who collaborated closely with the sniper team what he thought about such technology. “Trained scouts and snipers must master a set of physical and mental skills that is beyond the reach of most people. This type of rifle can never replace that. Besides being crack shooters, they are in excellent physical condition, able to do complicated calculations in their heads and have mastered field craft such as land navigation, stalking and range estimation.”
One of the features of the TrackingPoint rifle is the ability to video stream your shot and share the view from the scope to another device connected via Wi-Fi. It’s this connection to Wi-Fi that turned out to be the weak point. The gun’s network has a default password that cannot be changed.
Sandvik and Auger told Wired magazine that they developed a set of techniques that could allow an attacker to compromise the rifle via its Wi-Fi connection and exploit its software. They demonstrated that making a change in one of the variables listed above could cause the rifle to miss its intended target, disable the scope’s computer making it a useless piece of weight, or prevent the gun from firing. The TrackingPoint rifle has a range of up to a mile.
“A trained sniper is constantly making adjustments for these things. Of course, one thing they are always looking for is to shot further with more knockdown power,” said Ashe.
The good news is that hackers cannot make the gun fire by itself – that still requires a real finger pulling the trigger.
I asked Steve if the possibility of analog hacks existed. “Snipers always have their guns, and they hold onto their ammunition. But they have to sleep.” He said that snipers press their own bullets so they would be sure of the weight, but it’s possible, albeit improbable, that someone could tamper with it. Another hack would be to shave the firing pin, but again, highly improbable.
Speculation about the implications of Sandvik’s and Auger’s hack are pretty obvious. With military and law enforcement applications, having a third party control the trajectory of your bullet or brick your gun could cause a mission to go awry. Graduates of the US Army Sniper School are expected to achieve 90% of their first round hits at 600 meters, so with those kind of statistics, the question becomes why do they even need it?
“The computer assisted sniper rifle, has not yet made its way into the military or law enforcement units, even though they are testing it. But you gotta understand, things move slowly in the military. The Marines haven’t updated their sniper rifles in 14 years. Doesn’t look like something like this will become a threat,” said Ashe.
Thankfully, only about 1,000 of the TrackingPoint firearms have been sold and the company is reportedly not shipping any rifles currently.