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Stalking Jets

Targeted by a Twitter bot, Elon Musk’s Gulfstream G650 is just one of several high-profile aircraft to have its comings and goings broadcast to the world.

Elon Musk’s Gulfstream G650. Photo by Victor via Flickr

The very public negotiation between Elon Musk, the founder and head of both Tesla and SpaceX, and Jack Sweeney, a student at the University of Central Florida, is big news because Musk is such a famous person and, well, because Sweeney is just some kid who managed to get Musk’s attention when Sweeney created a Twitter bot to automatically announce flight tracking details of Musk’s Gulfstream G650. The whole thing became Twitter fodder when Sweeney revealed that Musk had offered him $5,000 to deactivate the bot, citing “security concerns.” The student declined the offer and countered with a $50k ask, to which Musk has not replied.

There are bigger concerns at stake, most importantly the question of how much privacy owners and pilots of aircraft should expect when they fly from point to point, and how much they deserve. It’s clear that pilots aren’t big fans of Big Brother. In our May 2021 P&P Survey, our audience members weighed in strongly against use of ADS-B data to initiate FAA enforcement actions.

For the record, Sweeney, a longtime fan of the Tesla billionaire, isn’t singling out Musk for this attention. The space/car magnate is, in fact, just one of 15 high-profile figures for which Sweeney has created Twitter bots, which are automated accounts that parse data and announce it over a Twitter feed.

But how is it done? For starters, the hard part for Sweeney was creating in creating the bot, not in getting the flight data. The FAA has an open-source broadcast of aircraft movement, as recorded by ADS-B, which is a computerized, GPS-enabled surveillance technology that uses radio frequencies to transmit its data to air traffic controller for use in, well, controlling air traffic. The public feed has individually identifying information on the aircraft, and because a plane’s N-number is either public information or easily garnered by plane spotters, it’s not possible these days for anyone to keep their planes secret.


But how public their planes’ movements should be is different subject. To help owners keep their aircraft’s sky tracks under wraps, the FAA initiated the PIA program several years ago. With PIA, owners can pay to have their planes’ N-numbers hidden in the FAA’s data stream. The move was a fairly transparent concession to owners and flyers of business aircraft, who wanted their travels to remain secret. Their reasons were credible enough, citing concerns that competitors could track their movements and thereby gain critical corporate intelligence. Many of the proponents of N-number blocking, it should be noted, are high-profile political donors.

Enter the private sector, which saw a potentially lucrative market in bypassing PIA and sharing ADS-B flight data with its customers. This they accomplished in much the same way that Live ATC get air traffic control recordings, by equipping people with receivers, in this case ADS-B receivers, and networking that data. There’s nothing illegal about it, but it does,  as Musk pointed out in his communications with Sweeney, raise privacy and security issues. Those issues show no sign of being resolved any time soon no matter how much Tesla cash Musk throws Sweeney’s way.


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