September 25, 2009

Oligarch's yacht uses laser defenses against passive optical spying

Billionaire Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich is known for the measures he takes to protect his privacy. Like Michael Dell, the interiors of his homes and vehicles aren't photographed.

The Times reports that Abramovich's 170 meter yacht M/Y Eclipse, currently undergoing shakedown cruises, has been fitted with a state-of-the-art optics countermeasure system:

Infrared lasers detect the electronic light sensors in nearby cameras, known as charge-coupled devices. When the system detects such a device, it fires a focused beam of light at the camera, disrupting its ability to record a digital image.

Although this report says a digital camera's CCDs are detected, it seems likely that this is instead an active optics detector. An optics detector works by emitting a brief laser pulse and then waiting for any glint from reflected optics. In this case, the system then targets a laser on the hostile lenses, flooding them with light and rendering the viewing optics ineffective.

If this system indeed detects optics and not just camera CCDs, then all optics would be flared with laser light, including binoculars, telescopes, and film cameras lacking digital Charged-Coupled Devices.

Wired speculates on the legality of this system under British law:

UK photo magazine Amateur Photographer asked a London lawyer about the legalities of destroying photos from afar. Here’s what he said: "intermeddling with goods belonging to someone else, or altering their condition, is a trespass to goods and will entitle the photographer to claim compensation without having to prove loss."

Defense against optical surveillance isn't the Russian businessman's only concern: M/Y Eclipse is also fitted with armor plate, bullet-resistant glass and a missile defense system.