Hackers Can Disable a Sniper Rifle—Or Change Its Target

PUT A COMPUTER on a sniper rifle, and it can turn the most amateur shooter into a world-class marksman. But add a wireless connection to that computer-aided weapon, and you may find that your smart gun suddenly seems to have a mind of its own—and a very different idea of the target.

At the Black Hat hacker conference in two weeks, security researchers Runa Sandvik and Michael Auger plan to present the results of a year of work hacking a pair of $13,000 TrackingPoint self-aiming rifles. The married hacker couple have developed a set of techniques that could allow an attacker to compromise the rifle via its Wi-Fi connection and exploit vulnerabilities in its software. Their tricks can change variables in the scope’s calculations that make the rifle inexplicably miss its target, permanently disable the scope’s computer, or even prevent the gun from firing. In a demonstration for WIRED (shown in the video above), the researchers were able to dial in their changes to the scope’s targeting system so precisely that they could cause a bullet to hit a bullseye of the hacker’s choosing rather than the one chosen by the shooter.

“You can make it lie constantly to the user so they’ll always miss their shot,” says Sandvik, a former developer for the anonymity software Tor. Or the attacker can just as easily lock out the user or erase the gun’s entire file system. “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 exposed circuitboards of the Tracking Point TP750.

Since TrackingPoint launched in 2011, the company has sold more than a thousand of its high-end, Linux-power rifles with a self-aiming system. The scope allows you to designate a target and dial in variables like wind, temperature, and the weight of the ammunition being fired. Then, after the trigger is pulled, the computerized rifle itself chooses the exact moment to fire, activating its firing pin only when its barrel is perfectly oriented to hit the target. The result is a weapon that can allow even a gun novice to reliably hit targets from as far as a mile away.

But Sandvik and Auger found that they could use a chain of vulnerabilities in the rifle’s software to take control of those self-aiming functions. The first of these has to do with the Wi-Fi, which is off by default, but can be enabled so you can do things like stream a video of your shot to a laptop or iPad. When the Wi-Fi is on, the gun’s network has a default password that allows anyone within Wi-Fi range to connect to it. From there, a hacker can treat the gun as a server and access APIs to alter key variables in its targeting application. (The hacker pair were only able to find those changeable variables by dissecting one of their two rifles and using an eMMC reader to copy data from the computer’s flash storage with wires they clipped onto its circuit board pins.)