How to irritate Chinese authorities, Elon Musk and Kylie Jenner at the same time? Monitor your private jets. Websites and Twitter accounts that track air traffic in real time provoke epidermal reactions, from simple complaints to equipment seizures.
Every year, Russian air freight companies, Saudi aircraft owners or others ask Dan Streufert, founder of the American flight tracking website ADS-B Exchange, to stop publishing their movements. Unsuccessfully.
“We haven’t deleted anything so far. This is public information. And I don’t want to be the arbiter who decides who is right or wrong,” says Streufert.
There are some limitations, but groups that chart flight routes point out that the primary source of information is legally available and accessible to anyone with the necessary equipment.
US law requires aircraft in certain areas to be equipped with the ADS-B satellite system, which periodically radios the aircraft’s position to air traffic controllers.
A site like Flightradar24 has 34,000 ground-based receivers around the world that can pick up these signals, data sent to a central network that cross-references flight schedules and other aircraft information.
But identifying the owner of a plane is another matter, according to Jack Sweeney, 19, creator of the “Celebrity Jets” Twitter account, which discovered Elon Musk’s private jet after a request for access to information in the US government’s public files.
Tesla’s boss offered him $5,000 to delete the “ElonJet” account, with more than 480,000 subscribers, which tracks every move on the billionaire’s plane.
“There’s a lot of interest. I’m doing something that works. People like to see what celebrities are doing,” Sweeney tells AFP, referring to outrage over the carbon footprint of planes.
Posting this kind of information on Twitter makes it “easier for people to access and understand it,” he adds.
‘The data is there’
In July, the ‘Celebrity Jets’ account revealed that reality TV star Kylie Jenner had taken a private jet for a 17-minute flight to California causing an uproar on social media.
“They tell working class people that we should feel guilty about our annual vacation flight, while these celebrities ride in private jets everyday like an Uber,” tweeted one netizen.
Sweeney or Streufert don’t see a red line they wouldn’t want to cross in relation to posting air routes. “The data is already there. I’m just redistributing it,” says Jack Sweeney.
This activity also generates income, even if it is difficult to assess. Dan Streufert admits to making a living this way but declines to give details, while Sweeney claims his flight tracking accounts make him about $100 a month.
Flightradar24 does not report its turnover.
Flight tracking could also have a big impact beyond the ire of celebrities and billionaires, such as US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan on Tuesday, whose flight was followed by more. than 700,000 people on the Flightradar24 website at the time of its landing.
In August, an NGO report accusing the European border surveillance agency, Frontex, of facilitating the expulsion of migrants attempting the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean was based on data from ADS-B systems, just as American media used it to denounce the presence of surveillance flights during anti-racism demonstrations in Washington in 2020.
Dozens of congressmen, following these revelations, in a letter urged the FBI and other government agencies, such as the National Guard, to “stop monitoring peaceful protesters.”
In other parts of the world, governments have already made it clear that such technologies and data are not welcome.
Chinese state media reported in 2021 that the government had seized hundreds of receivers used by real-time flight tracking websites, citing a risk of “espionage”.
“In many cases, it’s authoritarian regimes that don’t like that kind of visibility,” says Dan Streufert.