The GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) in the UK, demanded the return or the destruction of the Guardians’ Snowden files. They were acting on behalf of the British government, citing that the use of lasers by foreign agents could monitor conversations in the room.
The Guardian had secured the files by insuring that they were never connected to the internet and that they were disconnected from networks. This did not allay the concerns of the GCHQ. Claiming that a laser would be able to pick up a conversation’s vibration by bouncing off a window in the room or relaying off an object as innocuous as a plastic cup; the GCHQ insisted that the files should not exist in the London offices. Rather than hand over the computer drives; the Guardian chose to smash them.
In reality, “laser spying” has been used by the US against Russian embassies for years. A high-quality laser can fire a beam of invisible light for up to half a mile. Supposedly a “laser microphone” was used to relay vibrations in Abbottabad which were then relayed to a voice recognition system. The technology was used to confirm the location of Osama bin Laden.
Even though laser technology could reveal the number of people in a room, and sometimes even determine their identity; it does not reveal what is actually being said. There are much simpler technologies for that; including planting the traditional “bug”. In fact, the penetration of a laser beam into a room can easily be blocked by something as simple as a closed window curtain. Another issue is precision positioning.
According to the Guardian “The principle of laser spying is comparatively simple. The conversation inside a room moves the air; the air moves the windows. A laser beam aimed at the window will shift slightly in wavelength as the window moves. By tracking that shift, the movement of the window can be inferred – yielding the original conversation.
Lee Marks , a director at Spymaster says: “Laser spying is about the most difficult way of listening to what’s going on in a room… you have to get it exactly at right angles. It has to bounce off and right back to you.”
In addition to the US usage of “laser spying” against the Russians, Nasa technology that has previously been used to detect faint radio signals from space, is now being used to eavesdrop on a room where the curtains are blocking the windows. Using a “horn antenna” this “microwave” technology can blast a wave of energy that is between 30GHZ and !00Ghz through a building wall. If people are speaking inside a room, any flimsy surface, such as clothing will be vibrating, and cause a modulation of the radio beam as it reflects from the surface. It is then amplified and analyzed.
Simpler systems using the planted bug can also use a laser beam to transmit conversations. Such a device was found in the offices of Trinidad & Tobagos’s director of public prosecutions this year.