Thursday, 31 January 2013

Neurohacking: A Brain Caper

As any neuroscientist or psychologist knows, calling the human brain “flawed” would be an understatement. Brains can be distracted easily, reject information they disagree with, and convinced to make rather stupid decisions not in their self-interest. Just Google the term “cognitive bias” for some clear examples. The brain is an impulsive, ad hoc massively parallel system, if we wish to view it as a computer system. 

Like other computers, the brain can be hacked. That is, its vulnerabilities can be exploited for someone else’s motives or curiosity. Eating sweetened foods or watching TV are common “hacks” for the pleasure centers of the brain. However, as neurotechnology advances, they may also be hacked. It is already possible to hack invasive implants (such as pacemakers, cochlear implants, etc.), so hacking a brain implant (especially a wireless one) is not outside the realm of possibility. Personal information could be placed at risk. 

More interestingly, brain-hacking is possible even by non-invasive venues. Even EEG, an older technology, can beused for neural hacking. EEG headsets are becoming commercialized and cheaper (about 200-300 USD). One use for these is brain computer interface (BCI). Brain computer interface (BCI) is a technology which allows an individual’s brain signals to control a computer or prosthetic device. There are applications for medicine (e.g. assisting disabled persons) and for entertainment (e.g. computer and video games). 

Interestingly, a simple EEG-based BCI system was used to unknowingly steal information from participants in a study. The types of information included house locations, bank account and credit card numbers, PINs, and the like. The study had a ~10-40% success rate on its 28 participants. None of them knew they were being hacked. Imagine if hackers disguised such an information-stealing program as a computer game, or embedded such a system with a popular computer game. 

Imagine if the personal data harvested by such an endeavor was encrypted, cached, and stored online for later retrieval. For instance, imagine if any a small amount of cash from compromised bank accounts was converted into an encrypted, online currency (e.g. BitCoin) and then vanishes into the underground economy. Such a process could easily be automated and be implemented at a low cost.
There are possible defenses and countermeasures that could be used. For example, tagging suspicious transactions with online banking could be one. Another could be allowing open access to code to check for any hacks or tweaks of the sort. Some people may have “natural defenses” in the form of forgetfulness and absent-mindedness. Still, the low success rate (<50%) means that in order to be profitable, such a hack would need to target large numbers of people or specifically target wealthy people. Social engineering may also be combined to prevent people from realizing anything is amiss, as well. 

Given that all the technologies for such an endeavor already exist, implementing a prototype system could be a rewarding task. Likewise, imagine if government and private spy agencies began investigating this technology. What could possibly go wrong?

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Varangian Arms: Pathfinder

This week, I'd like to propose another idea for Varangian Arms, the Pathfinder. The name comes from a firearm in a fantasyroleplaying game used by a noteworthy non-player character (NPC). The Pathfinder is a double-barreled pistol with two triggers, one for each barrel. It is an over-under design (as opposed to a side by side one), and must utilize as few moving parts as possible.  

-The barrels should be over under rather than side by side.

-Each separate trigger should fire a barrel independently.

-The system should have as few moving parts as possible. (A pair of solenoids may allow for electronic ignition.)

-It should be reloaded by a top break or detachable barrel assembly.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Printed Guns: Desktop Manufacturing and Firearms

Desktop manufacture promises a potential for homemade weapons of several types, from potentially using 3D printed firearms to entirely novel designs. While policy implications have been covered before, many aspects of the field could be entirely novel relative to current technology. In other words, homemade weapons and gadgets may not be limited to ones we are familiar with today.

For example, a homemade firearm may no longer need be either a "zip gun" or some ad hoc apparatus firing conventional brass cartridges. Existing technologies hint at what may come. Caseless ammunition, for example, means that all one needs is a projectile and propellant. Desktop production of caseless ammo may mean that ammunition becomes even easier to acquire. (Quality, performance, and consistency of ammunition, however, is another matter entirely.) 

One relevant topic to this is stacked ammunition, or a superposed load. This technology is an ancient one, dating back to the first firearms in history. The concept is multiple bullets in the same barrel, each ignited separately. This was done with wheellock, flintlock, and caplock systems, but this concept has been revisited with the Aussie Metal Storm concept. The Aussie concept used several bullets in the same barrel with electric current used to ignite each round. The barrels would be swapped instead of magazines changed. Imagine, in the not too distant future, a Metal Storm-like system that can be printed at home with the bullets built right in the barrel. Such a weapon would likely lack accuracy and power, perhaps compensated for by a high rate of fire. 

However, the Metal Storm system and this system has flaws. For instance, the Metal Storm operates best when using low power, low recoil loads. This means that powerful, armor piercing or rifle-type rounds may suffer, but pistol or shotgun type shells may work. However, the high volume of fire is offset by the extremely low ammo capacity of the system. So, it may be more useful as a blank firing system (essentially a glorified Roman candle), rubber bullet spraying riot control device, or anti-missile point defense for warships. 

As such, designs with multiple smoothbore barrels from history may come back. For example, the pepperbox pistol may return. A related design is the duck-foot pistol, where barrels are angled away from each other (such a weapon was preferred by naval officers during the Age of Sail) due to utility in close range combat. A revolver with preloaded cylinders may also return, perhaps with several bullets in each cylinder. Furthermore, each barrel (or cylinder) can be loaded with separate types of munitions. One may fire subsonic munitions in one barrel, conventional rounds in another, rubber bullets in another, and so on. 

This versatility makes for some interesting potential combinations (and potential mishaps). As the technology to manufacture weapons and munitions at home is refined from crude tools to automated production, I find it logical to think that law enforcement and military units will remain several steps ahead. Criminals, however, will always strive to find new methods and hacks for their own needs. Crime will not vanish from human society, and I am confident that such weapons can be used by both victims and criminals. 

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Arsenal of Democracy

    "Personal weapons are what raised mankind out of the mud, and the rifle is the queen of personal weapons." –Jeff Cooper, “The Art of the Rifle”
You may recall I covered weapons and policies regarding them several times in this blog. Weapons and laws regarding their use are very relevant topics for a blog regarding supervillainy. This column is an expansion on Dr. Brin’s excellent “Jefferson Rifle” essay. He proposes setting aside one specific class of firearms from registration as a safeguard against tyranny, as a counterpoint to the “slippery slope” view of gun control: the bolt-action rifle. There is significant historical background and reason for this, as a neighbors covering each other with hunting rifles can turn an urban warfare situation into a meatgrinder for conventional and modern armies. Jeff Cooper, the founder of the "Modern Technique" of handgun shooting, preferred a bolt action "scout rifle" as his ideal firearm. This was shown in countless conflicts, but most recently with the Bougainville uprising. A group of natives, angry about a polluting mine, used obsolete weapons against the forces of Papua New Guinea (and later, mercenaries and international forces). 

Regulation and cataloguing of certain types of firearms can eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. As the New Zealand government determined, hunting and sporting weapons are the least regulated of their own categories of firearms (with pistols and then semi-automatics with higher capacity detachable magazines being more regulated). “Hunting and sporting” weapons include primarily manually cycled long-arms, such as bolt action, pump action, and lever action rifles and shotguns. These weapons are hard to conceal, have a low rate of fire compared to a semi-auto, and are slower to reload. This makes them impractical for most criminals or spree killers. A criminal may try to “saw one off,” but by that point, the weapon has probably already been stolen and/or resold on the black market. New Zealand also counts semi-automatics with a fixed magazine in the sporting category, like the Mossberg 10/22, to be added to the sporting category. It is harder to reload such a system than, say, an AR-15 style rifle or civilian AK copy. Firearms such as these may be good additions to the “Jefferson rifle” advocated by Brin. Other things, such as air rifles, slingshots, and crossbows, also belong here.  

I would argue a few other things could be added to this “least regulated/unregulated category,” as even many countries with strict gun control do. These include black powder pistols, from flintlock horse pistols to cap and ball revolvers. The inaccuracy, size, noise, and awkward dimensions of say, a flintlock pistol make it impractical for spree-killings and more practical as a “range toy” or decoration or movie prop. This “historic” category could also include some early semi-automatic pistols (and perhaps modern replicas), such as the Mauser C96 or C93 Borchardt pistols, due to their low ammo capacity, awkwardness reloading, and awkward size compared to modern semi-automatic pistols. 1901 seems to be a good cut-off point, as the first Browning design utilizing a slide was made in 1899, and this date also includes designs from the Boer Wars. 

Lastly, even Russia and Germany allow for individuals to carry less-lethal weapons for defense without much paperwork. This includes things like gas guns shooting rubber bullets, pepper spray, tasers, and so forth. While less lethal weapons can kill, their purpose is to deter or distract an attacker long enough to get away. A robber may use them for intimidation, but they may do the same for with a sawn off shotgun or knife. As far as carry concealed firearms, I will cover that next.
The ability of civilians to legally carry a concealed pistol is interestingly supported by some gun control proponents, as carry concealed laws are essentially a form of gun control (requiring registration, background checks, and so forth). However, most places even the US have background checks, required training, and criminal penalties against the misuse of such a firearm. As Larry Correia states, a carry concealed permit is not a badge. Small amounts of ammo can be carried (hence why compact automatics and revolvers are favored for the task), rather than say, a higher capacity semi-automatic. To prevent issues such as the Trayvon Martin shooting, cameras may be required to be added to the pistol to record each time it is shot outside of a firing range. It is not merely humans I am concerned with. In wilderness areas, there are threats like wild animals, rabid/feral dogs, and the like that may require lethal force. This is one reason the Pacific Northwest in the USA and western Canada tend to be more permissive of firearms, given the wolves and bears that live in the wilderness nearby. Concealed carry owners have stopped a few spree killings, as may mad shooters tend to turn their weapons on themselves after encountering significant resistance. A concealed carry pistol with limited ammo capacity, a “paper trail” registered with police, limitations on use, stringent storage requirements, and perhaps a camera to ensure proper usage makes for a poor weapon for spree killings and crime.  

There is a last category of firearms which may be completely impractical to regulate or legislate, unlike carry concealed models or historical relics/replicas. That is homemade weapons. There are two broad categories of homemade firearms: the first are hobbyists or recreational users. The second one are “black market” gunsmiths. A hobbyist may indeed manufacture historic weapons, as a hobbyist can include a historical re-enactor, collector, or prop-designer. Their weapons are primarily designed for fun, or legitimate profit (such as making exotic prop guns for a science fiction movie). So long as their designs meet the “Jeffersonian” category I’ve described earlier, I would allow them to produce such devices. The advent of desktop manufacture (potentially with new technologies, like caseless ammo) may mean this could become nearly impossible to track via conventional means. If they start providing or selling weapons for the black market with definite intent, then there are already a number of criminal charges suitable for them. 

The current generation of firearms requires bullets to work, otherwise they are merely clubs. A simpler solution than cumbersome regulations could simply be tracing ammunition rather than firearms. If regulations are to be written, focusing on the logistics of the issue seems more prudent than every individual manifestation of the symptoms. My inner civil libertarian wishes to see everyone allowed to do what they want, so long as they don’t hurt anyone. As stated before, the ideas I list primarily come from Russian, German, New Zealand, and (smarter) US policies. 

As an aside, I believe ending the drug war, for-profit prisons, and the current incarnation of the American criminal justice system/prison-industrial complex will lower gun crime rates more than any bill or executive order being dreamed up now. Drug related shootings comprise about 80-85% of firearms homicide. A professor who studied the history of violence in the US interestingly found that social inequity and a lack of social safety nets is the major driver of crimes and depraved spree killings. A policy like Brin’s “Moron Act” to deny killers infamy is another sound idea, depriving bad guys of infamy. The problem is, the status quo has all the momentum of a cyberpunk dystopia, and the other indicators (climate disruption, resource depletion, market manipulations, legal impunity for endemic financial fraud, etc.) mean the emergence of corrupt neofeudalism more than any kind of democratic grand compromises or enlightened decision making.  

Monday, 7 January 2013

Varangian Arms: Sophia

"Mad Science" means never stopping to ask "what's the worst thing that could happen?"
–Schlock Mercenary 
A firearm is a confluence of many fields of science and technology: chemistry (for the propellant), metallurgy/materials science (for the substances used in manufacture), mechanics (for moving parts), physics (for the ballistics of the projectile), biomechanics (for the actual ergonomics/handling of it), (arguably) psychology and neuroscience (for how the person handling it actually thinks and treats it), and perhaps one day, electronics (if electronics come to displace many of the old fashioned mechanical systems). I am proud to announce a series of posts for weaponry designed as more novelties for hobbyists, researchers, movie/stage props, and "firing range toys" more than actual tools for combat or defense. In the words of Cave Johnson, "Science isn't about why, it's about why not."

You may have heard of the WikiWeapon project to create an open source, 3D printable firearm, but "open source" development of weapons without conventional patents is not a new concept. I figure the zeitgeist may be right for open source weaponry and concepts. The manufacture of the first weapons pre-dates the modern concept of intellectual properties by thousands of years. Likewise, some designs are simple to manufacture and replicate with basic tools, such that a patent cannot be easily enforced. For instance, the Kalashnikov family of weapons has long since become the de facto open source platform in the developing world, churned out in places like Khyber Pass workshops by the dozens.

So, without further delay, I would introduce you to Varangian Arms: Weapons designed for aesthetics, novelty, and curiosity rather than self defense or combat. This makes them more suitable (as stated before) as stage props, oddities for a gun range, and glorified science projects. From steampunky anachronisms to futuristic designs, Varangian Arms is based on historical, obscure, and interesting designs. If anyone out there actually designs one of the Varangian projects on CAD or actually builds the thing, I have one request: that it be put under an Open Hardware license. The abuse of intellectual property laws by rent-seeking media companies and patent trolls is something I find annoying. A few other common sense things: Obey local ordinances and policies regarding the use of these designs, since these are more science projects. Varangian Arms designs are deliberately unsuitable for criminals and spree killers. Also, avoid infringing on existing patents, since an army of angry lawyers is the last thing any field needs.

The first Varangian Arms design is a cyberpunk inspired firearm called "Sophia," specifically a re-imagining of the revolver. The Greek word for "Wisdom" ironically describes a confluence of bizarre innovations used in revolvers. Sophia would be a suitable sidearm for a science fiction character, perhaps a detective or mad scientist. "Sophia" is inspired heavily by the designs of Emilio Ghisoni, such as the Mateba Model 6 Unica and Chiappa Rhino. It should have most of the following features (if possible).

1) Most importantly, Sophia has the barrel being located at the bottom "6 o'clock" position instead of the "12 o'clock" position common for revolvers. This makes handling recoil easier, although increases the mechanical complexity. Sophia is NOT an auto-revolver, but instead just a weird "conventional" double action revolver (although it should be able to fire single action).

2) The cylinder has a few quirks on its own. It has the ability to chamber multiple calibers, like the Medusa Model 47, due to claws that lock the bullets into place. It is still designed to withstand the pressures of up to a .357 Magnum shell firing, and has 6 chambers.

3) Another feature is the cylinder slides forward when the trigger is compressed, much like the Russian Nagant M1895 gas seal. This feature allows a revolver to be suppressed conventionally, like the KGB did with the Nagant.

4) I am not sure the sliding cylinder feature would allow a conventional swing-out cylinder to be used (like in the bulk of modern designs), but there are some alternative possibilities: One is a cylinder that partially "pops" out (like the Russian OTs-38), a replaceable pre-loaded cylinder (like a Remington 1858), or perhaps even a side-mounted loading gate with spent cartridge ejector (like the original Nagant revolver).

Sophia is a fairly complex system, with the cylinder and unconventional barrel placement being the most complicated (and arguably delicate) parts. I would hope some individuals out there would seek to further the mad science of "bizarro gunsmithing," as advocated by Varangian Arms.