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Laser pointers: another example of unintended consequences, glide slope to the desktop


Laser pointers are yet another example of what I call technology's glide slope to the desktop, i.e., becoming smaller, cheaper, and more widely available. Once even reasonably available, all it takes to attract terrorist or criminal interest, is the public recording of someone experimenting, or the mimicking of the outcome of an accident or natural disaster. (Think how easily we now know how to take down an LA metro rail system or collapse a regional power grid.)

Lasers were pointed at US military aircraft as early as early as 1997:

The incident involving [Lt. Jack Daly] occurred April 4, 1997, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near the U.S. submarine base at Bangor, Wash. The Navy intelligence officer was flying in a Canadian helicopter monitoring the Russian merchant ship Kapitan Man, which appeared to be shadowing a U.S. ballistic missile submarine. A suspected laser device fired from the Kapitan Man left him and the Canadian pilot "victims of what could be argued was a hostile act in an undeclared war, an act of terrorism, and, at a minimum, a federal crime," Daly told Hunter's House Armed Services subcommittee on procurement. He and Canadian Air Force Capt. Patrick Barnes have since suffered persistent pain and deteriorating eyesight.

While there have been some 400 reported instances of lasers aimed at aircraft since the early 1990s, the volume is now increasing rapidly:

Over [January], pilots have reported more than 30 incidents of laser beams being trained from the ground into their aircraft, prompting warnings from federal authorities and new reporting guidelines.

Lasers were pointed at US commercial aircraft with rising frequency by September, 2004, and the incidents have now blossomed. By December, an FBI bulletin to law enforcement rightly notes that lasers are now "relatively inexpensive, portable, easy to conceal and readily available on the open market [and] Although lasers are not proven methods of attack like improvised explosive devices and hijackings, terrorist groups overseas have expressed interest in using these devices against human sight."

Lasers have long been able to cause temporary blindness, even causing severe retina burning and permanent blindness depending on intensity, proximity, and protection:

But just as red lasers were used by drug dealers to harass police helicopters and by sports fanatics to distract basketball players taking free throws, green ones have been put to ill use. And with their longer range, experts say, green lasers pose a real danger because they can render pilots temporarily blind.

The rise in incidents is due to plummeting cost and the emergence of green lasers. While prices have dropped for both red (150:1) and green (6:1), it is the fact that the green devices are visible over a much longer range (4:1) and have a much greater effect on the human eye:

The human eye responds to the green light approximately 50 times better than the red laser pointer, and that is why it appears so bright.

Lasers have become an ubiquitous fact of the economies of the developed world. A good introduction to laser hazard classification of the four categories can be found here. CD and DVD devices have the lowest, Class 1, lasers. Laser pointers are Class 3 ("definitely hazardous for intrabeam viewing," i.e., when its pointed at you), while industrial laser equipment are the highest, Class 4 ("either a fire or skin hazard or a diffuse reflection hazard. Very stringent control measures are required")

Most of the inexpensive, portable green lasers are Class 3. Think of simple approaches such as ganging them in bundles.

I urge readers to read Granneman's article on unintended consequences. We will not stop the march of technology any more than we will reformulate political decision making, but we can at least begin to consider the consequences, good and bad.

Laser Pointer Abuse Threatens Air Safety
By David A. Fahrenthold and Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post
January 27, 2005

Exploring the law of unintended consequences
By Scott Granneman, SecurityFocus
21 January 2005
The Register

Gordon Housworth

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