Your Fingerprint Sensor Sucks But You Shouldn’t Feel Bad

Kai Kloepfer’s fingerpint based firearm access control system is back in the news:

Presented at the 2016 International San Francisco Smart Gun Symposium (ironic, considering the city shuttered its last gun shop in 2015), then 18-year-old Kai Kloepfer presented a new handgun design that incorporates a fingerprint reader. Young Mr. Kloepfer is sponsored by angel investor Ron Conway, who’s Smart Tech Challenges Foundation is spending $1.5 million for the development of “firearms safety technology.” Kloepfer is one of about 15 start-ups that Conway is sponsoring.

The design has been in skunk-works for over four years. Kloepfer’s start-up, Biofire, is “just a few months from a live-firing prototype, which assuming it works, will be the first gun to unlock like an iPhone.” This is untrue, as multiple finger-print reader base firearms have existed before, specifically Kodiak Industries with their Intelligun

Needless to say, the Internet gun community is flipping its shit again (in the comments sections of gun sites). A lot of valid criticisms have been made against Kloepfer’s technology. Some of those criticisms are the fact that his prototype isn’t lefthand friendly, people don’t always grip guns in the same way, fingerprint readers aren’t 100 percent reliable, batteries die, etc. I won’t go into detail on those. What I will go into detail on is the fact fingerprint sensors suck for access control.

As far back as 2013 the Chaos Computer Club (CCC) was bypassing Apple’s TouchID by obtaining a photograph of an authorized user’s fingerprint from a glass surface. No big deal, right? After all, somebody would have to find something you touched to lift your fingerprint from to bypass Kloepfer’s authentication system. That would require either breaking into your home or following you around in the hopes that you will touch something that your fingerprint can be reliably lifted from. Of course you also have the fact that in 2014 a member of the CCC was able to replicate a politician’s fingerprint from a photograph. You don’t need to follow somebody around to lift their fingerprint. You can just take a high resolution photograph of their hand when they’re out and about. And unlike Touch ID, which allows you to use any finger for authentication, the position of Kloepfer’s sensor means you know exactly what fingerprint you need to bypass the mechanism.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating, fingerprints suck as authentication mechanisms. There are two reasons for this. First, you leave your fingerprints everywhere. Second, if your fingerprints are obtained by somebody you can’t change them.

With that said, I think criticisms against Kloepfer have been unnecessarily harsh. While his product is defective he should receive credit for trying to create something new. I know many gun owners like to scream “Never!” whenever somebody mentions firearm authentication systems but I believe there is a market for such products. Households with small children or mentally disturbed individuals, for example, could benefit from firearms with authentication systems (I know, people should lock up their firearms, but shit happens and having another barrier between a child or mentally disturbed individual and a functional firearm isn’t a bad thing). Kloepfer shouldn’t receive a bunch of hatred for exploring a market. And I say this as somebody who isn’t even in that market (I have no interest in complicating my firearms with access control technology but different strokes for different folks).

This is where some gun owner usually brings up New Jersey’s law that will mandate all firearms sold in the state be equipped with access control mechanisms once the technology is available. In response I will point out that the anger should be directed at the government of New Jersey, not Kloepfer and other people trying to bring access control technology to firearms. They’re building a product that may be useful to people even in the absence of such a law, they didn’t pass the law and aren’t sending goons out to enforce it.

In summary Kloepfer’s technology sucks but he shouldn’t feel bad for developing it. Also, governments suck but that’s more of a summary of this entire blog than this specific post.

10 thoughts on “Your Fingerprint Sensor Sucks But You Shouldn’t Feel Bad”

  1. This is where some gun owner usually brings up New Jersey’s law…

    You read my mind. ;-j But you’re right: that law is the responsibility of New Jersey legislators, not Mr. Kloepfer. I would never choose a weapon which is designed to add new ways to malfunction just when I might need it most, but as you say, one man’s preferences can not legitimately be the basis for a prohibition on other people partaking of a technology.

    It seems odd that after four years, Mr. Kloepfer is “just a few months from a live-firing prototype.” Sheesh, this isn’t rocket science! The interface between the electronics and the gun’s moving parts can be simple and low energy; for example, something like the transfer bar that Ruger uses in its revolvers, and it could be slid into place using a small solenoid. The hardware and software for the sensor plate may be tricky; perhaps they have to re-engineer that if there are no off-the-shelf fingerprint readers available to OEMs yet. That would surprise me, though, as many school cafeterias have fingerprint-reading devices.

    1. What gets me is that if you’re interfering with the trigger mechanism anyways you could swap out the entire mechanical trigger with an electronic one. Having the trigger be a button press instead of the articulation of a spring-loaded lever would could give the best damn trigger pull out there. But it appears that Kloepfer is trying to jerry rig an authentication system into an existing gun without making additional improvements that are made available by introducing electronics into the platform.

  2. If you are already relying on fingerprint auth for gun activation, swapping the entire FCG over to an electronic vs mechanical mechanism seems pretty logical. You’ve already introduced the issues/risk associated with an electronic system, so you mind as well run with it.

    Plus if your goal is to disable the firearm to no-authorized users leaving most of the mechanical bits would likely leave the bar lower to by pass the system.

  3. Having an electronic firing mechanism would mean that an electronic failure could fire the gun, once cocked, whether or not the trigger was pulled or even touched. That seems very dangerous to me, much more so than the gun simply refusing to fire. An automatic pistol could in effect go full auto through such a malfunction, which would very likely result in bullets getting sprayed every which way.

    1. It depends on how you designed it. Back in the day Remington experimented with an electronic firing mechanism it labeled EtronX. The traditional mechanical parts were replaced with electronics. As designed, if there was no power to the system it would not fire. Since the trigger was a physical switch the gun also wouldn’t fire unless the trigger was depressed (the circuit closed). Being a fairly simple circuit also meant that other potential failures were minimal.

      Of course the firing mechanism failed to take off, mostly because it required specially primed cartridges. But they tried. And as far as I know there were no instances of electronics failing and causing the gun to fire.

      In addition to what I mentioned above, you can also add multiple redundant safeties just as modern firearms have. When you look at a typical Glock pistol there is a trigger safety and a firing pin block that act in a redundant manner. To pull the trigger the trigger safety must be depressed and the trigger bar moving back is what deactivates the firing pin block. If either safety fails the other one still prevents the gun from firing unintentionally.

      The same redundancies can be built into electronics. Having two physically separate circuits that must both be activated to firing the gun would be one say to prevent a short in a circuit from firing the gun. Physical fuses are commonly used to physically break a circuit if an unexpected surge occurs.

      I should also note that the type of failure you describe can also happen on purely mechanical guns. I’ve personally witnessed a semi-automatic AK-47 go full auto.

      But we’ve been using electronics for a long time now and we’ve developed a lot of safety mechanisms that allow an electronic device to be just as safe as a mechanical one.

  4. I would bet that the BATFU would classify and semiauto gun with an electric trigger to be readily convertible to a machine gun and illegal to make.

  5. It might be possible to have electrical firing with conventional primers by using some kind of high-power thermal discharge, such as a laser or xenon flash, or a solenoid mechanical striker. The latter would have the disadvantage of not eliminating the vibration induced by the firing pin strike, although it would have the other benefits of non-mechanical firing. The thermal methods would have the “advantage” of less potential for automatic fire, since they would require a capacitive discharge system which would take time to cycle, like a camera flash. “Advantage”, in scare quotes, because if electrical firing ever looked to be catching on, I think it is all but certain that ATF would try to restrict or prohibit it on the grounds of ease of conversion from semi-auto to full automatic.

  6. But we’ve been using electronics for a long time now and we’ve developed a lot of safety mechanisms that allow an electronic device to be just as safe as a mechanical one.

    In the long run at least, I think your statement is correct. It will take a lot of field-proving of electronic firearms to wring out bugs, I expect, since the events we describe are already quite unusual (thank goodness!).

    In the long run, of course, we may not be using tiny explosions and hunks of lead flying about. A hand-held high-powered laser sounds much nicer: no recoil, and it could double as a spotting device using quickly-truncated flashes (at least in my imagination ;-j ). A lot will happen when/if there’s a serious breakthrough in battery technology.

    1. If we’re going to go beyond explosive propelled chunks of metal I’m ready to setup to up electromagnetically propelled chunks of metal. Bring on the rail guns!

Comments are closed.