Tech

The Rise Of The Spectacular Laser Protest

Protesters around the world are lighting up police, buildings, and aircraft with powerful, cheap lasers. The new “counter-optical” activism.

KHALED DESOUKI / Getty Images

This striking image, which shows Egyptian protestors in front of the presidential palace in Cairo, made the rounds on Monday morning. It’s surreal to the point that it seems faked. But it’s not:

KHALED DESOUKI / Getty Images

Khalil Hamra / AP

KHALED DESOUKI / Getty Images

This, however, is not the first use of pocket lasers in protest — far from it. Laser protests were popular in Greece in 2011, during demonstrations against the government’s austerity plan, for example:

Lasing, as it’s called, actually has a fairly long, if underreported, history. In a 2009 post on the security blog Red Team Journal, the “counter-optical” lasing is traced back to the late ’90s. The FBI even released a special edition of its Law Enforcement Journal in 2008, detailing the rise of laser use among protesters as well as criminals.

The proliferation of lasing may be the result, in part, of its inclusion in an update to Anarchism in Action, a guidebook for protesters:

These cheap lasers can be extremely bright: They can temporarily blind both cameras and people, and some of the powerful green and blue lasers seen above can quickly cause permanent vision loss. This video, filmed after reports of airliner lasing in Moscow, shows what a single laser can do to a pilot’s vision:

After laser protests in Athens, Red Team Journal warned its readership:

The implications of events in Athens for law enforcement are self-evident. With all the media notice of this incident, we can now expect this TTP to begin to spread to other riots and direct actions taking place in Europe and North America in the future.

From a protester’s perspective, the pocket laser is perfectly elegant: It’s small, cheap, and easy to conceal; it can cause very real disturbances to people that you’re either trying to reach or stop; it makes for great photo opportunities.

There’s also something a bit poetic about the whole thing: a pocket laser isn’t lethal, but it can reach farther than a bullet. We can expect to see more of them.

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