Owning a private jet isn’t what it used to be.
Citing security risks and privacy rights, the wealthiest of ultra-wealthy jet owners have had it with tracking websites and social media accounts dedicated to pinpointing their exact whereabouts as they move through the skies.
Last week, Elon Musk, the world’s second-richest man, suspended dozens of Twitter accounts belonging to a 20-year-old college student who had been posting the routes of private jets, including Musk’s Gulfstream G650. “Any account that discloses the real-time location of anyone will be suspended as it is a breach of physical security.” Musk tweeted.
Earlier this year, Bernard Arnault, the world’s richest man, sold his company’s private jet after becoming frustrated with the streaming of his air routes. The French business magnate told a radio station in October: “The result is that nobody can see where I’m going because I rent planes when I use private jets.”
The right of billionaires to travel in secret is a niche concern, to say the least. But it’s one that has come under the spotlight after those high-profile moves, particularly as Musk has claimed that the steps he took to lock down his plane’s location were being ignored.
Flight tracking data has long been publicly available to aviation enthusiasts who knew where and how to obtain it. What’s changed in recent years is that there’s more of it, it’s easier to access, and enthusiasts have become more sophisticated in their digging, using social media to broadcast the information to the world instantly. . Crowdfunding websites and fan-run accounts have proliferated on various platforms, coinciding with a huge increase in private air travel during the pandemic.
The most prominent independent jet tracker is Jack Sweeney, the University of Central Florida sophomore whose Twitter accounts were banned by Musk; before his suspension, Sweeney’s automated @ElonJet account had amassed more than half a million followers.
In an interview with The Times on Tuesday, Sweeney said that despite the billionaire’s legal threats, he believed he had the right to release the location of Musk’s main Gulfstream and his other private jets. He noted that many of the people whose planes he has tracked, including Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift, were already easy to find through paparazzi photos and their own social media activity, and said the tracking of the planes was largely innocuous.
“It’s just part of being a celebrity — people are going to post about you. I don’t want to be detrimental to Elon — I started out as a fan,” Sweeney said. Undeterred by Twitter suspensions, he now posts his plane-tracking findings to YouTube, Instagram, Discord, Facebook, Mastodon and Telegram, tracking down Musk last weekend as the Gulfstream traveled to Qatar for the final of the World Cup.
“It’s not illegal to connect dots,” Sweeney said. “Some people say it’s not public. It’s totally out there. That’s like saying receiving AM or FM signals in your car is not public. Those signals are there and it’s legal to receive them.”
Who is using public airspace is typically considered public information because it relies on taxpayer-funded infrastructure such as air traffic control towers, said Ben Wizner, director of the American Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project of Civil Liberties.
The ACLU and investigative reporters have previously tracked tail numbers to uncover obscure government abuses.
There is “a significant public interest in being able to identify, in general, which flights are flying over us and where they are going,” he said. “I have never heard of a successful effort by anyone to claim that this is not public information.”
Aircraft owners say the release of this information is invasive, leaving them and their family members vulnerable to “crazy stalkers.” They also claim their business dealings could be hampered because eagle-eyed onlookers know where they’re going, such as a CEO seen flying into the headquarters of a takeover target or a coach heading to into town from a hot free agent in the offseason.
And many are sensitive to being labeled climate criminals: some plane trackers calculate the huge amounts of fuel consumed on private flights that presumably only carry a few passengers and have called out stars like Kylie Jenner, Drake and Oprah Winfrey to get their planes on flights. . which is only a few minutes.
Jenner, in particular, faced swift backlash this summer when she posted a photo on Instagram of herself making out with her boyfriend, Travis Scott, on the tarmac between two private jets. “Do you want to take mine or yours?” he captioned the post.
We have guys flying planes now if it’s a very important type of trip where they want total privacy and anonymity. They will let their plane sit because it’s not worth the risk.
– Matt Walter, director of business development at Van Nuys-based charter company Planet 9
Public flight tracking data is collected from a variety of sources, highlighting a complex network of systems and aviation agencies that each have their own data sets and usage rules.
Aircraft flying in the most controlled US airspace, whether commercial flights or private jets, must have Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B, a technology that allows the aircraft to directly transmit information such as its altitude, geographic location. or speed to Federal Aviation Administration ground stations, other aircraft, or satellites.
ADS-B data is primarily intended for for safety purposes and helps pilots and air traffic controllers to detect other aircraft and avoid collisions. It also allows family members or business associates on the ground to monitor a passenger en route.
This information is unencrypted and available to anyone with a radio receiver—which can be purchased for as little as $30 on Amazon and can be plugged into a USB drive—and a mini computer. Popular flight tracking websites such as FlightAware and Flightradar24 rely heavily on ADS-B data.
The curious can also subscribe to FAA data, which includes additional information such as flight plans.
However, there are measures for aircraft owners who want to fly under the radar, so to speak.
Early on, many owners register their aircraft in LLCs or trusts rather than listing their own names, a strategy also commonly used by yacht owners. They can also mark their plane’s unique tail number in the FAA’s aircraft database and block public tracking by filing a request under a privacy program known as Limiting Aircraft Data Displayed (LADD).
Jet-tracking websites that gain access to FAA data must comply with LADD rules and a second program, called Privacy ICAO aircraft address (PIA), which adds another layer of anonymity by assigning an identifier code random on the plane because it’s harder to track. Musk has suggested that participating in these programs should have blocked his information from all public view and that his plane was “cannot be tracked without using non-public data.“
But there are loopholes and simple fixes that Sweeney and others have employed.
Networks like ADSBexchange.com, which uses data fed from private citizens with home receiver configurations instead of FAA data, are not subject to the agency’s rules.
Meanwhile, the FAA’s two privacy programs are restricted to US domestic airspace only. And even if a plane uses the PIA program, a fan who can physically see the plane’s tail number—for example, by watching it land at Van Nuys Airport—can match it to the code d ‘random identifier broadcast from the radio for an aircraft that has just landed at the same location. People listening to air traffic control broadcasts can also sometimes hear the queue number over the communications.
Jet owners’ exasperation at being tracked is starting to benefit charter companies. Fly with us instead of your own plane, they tell potential customers, and no one will know you’re on board. Several charter companies said they will even allow high-profile fliers to board the plane inside the aircraft hangar to evade detection.
“You can track a specific queue all day, you can know which plane is where,” said Leona Qi, president of VistaJet US, “but if you don’t know who the passenger is, that’s worthless.”
Matt Walter, Planet 9’s director of business development, said the Van Nuys-based charter company blocks the tail numbers of the 30 planes in its fleet, most of which are privately owned ultra-long-range planes .
“We have guys flying planes now if it’s a very important type of trip where they want total privacy and anonymity,” he said. “They’ll let their plane sit because it’s not worth the risk.”
Three of those owners have even recently inquired about selling their planes, he said, perhaps intrigued by Arnault’s decision to offload his LVMH plane.
“It’s fascinating what’s going on,” Walter said. “We’ve had owners of our own fleet asking us if it’s a good time to sell and can we support them with charter aircraft if they sell… The conversation is being removed from the story that these aircraft can be tracked.”
Aviation enthusiasts who have developed flight tracking accounts see the data as a public good.
John Wiseman, 52, started his Advisory Circular network of Twitter bots after noticing police helicopters circling above his then Silver Lake residence. The robots use ADS-B data to identify when planes are flying over an area of cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Over the years, Wiseman’s work discovered a FBI surveillance program on US cities, which was also confirmed by an Associated Press news story. Through ADS-B data and additional research, he also found an aircraft in the LA area that drops sterile fruit flies to help reduce the fruit fly population, among other discoveries.
“I love that it’s available; I think it’s important,” Wiseman, a software engineer, said of the ADS-B data. “It provides some sort of transparency into government operations such as law enforcement. As soon as you start looking, and it’s very easy to look, you just find interesting things up there.”