How to annoy both senior Chinese officials, Elon Musk and Kylie Jenner? Track their private planes. The sites and Twitter accounts that follow air traffic in real time provoke epidermal reactions, from simple complaints to seizures of equipment.
Every year Russian airlines, Saudi aircraft owners or others ask Dan Streufert, founder of the American flight tracking site ADS-B Exchange, to stop publishing their movements, without success.
“We haven’t removed anything so far. This is public information. And I don’t want to be the arbiter who decides who is right or wrong,” explains Mr Streufert.
Some limitations exist, but groups that reconstruct flight paths 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 broadcasts the aircraft’s position to air traffic controllers.
A site like Flightradar24 has 34,000 ground receivers around the world that can pick up such signals, data sent to a central network and cross-referenced with flight schedules and other aircraft information.
Identifying the owner of a plane is another matter, according to Jack Sweeney, 19, creator of the “Celebrity Jets” Twitter account. He unearthed Elon Musk’s private jet after requesting information from the US government’s public records.
The boss of Tesla offered him $5,000 to bury the “ElonJet” account, more than 480,000 subscribers, which tracks all the movements of the multi-billionaire’s plane.
“He’s got so much interest. I do something that works. People like to see what celebrities are doing […] and the emissions stuff,” Sweeney told AFP, referring to outrage over the carbon footprint of planes.
“The data is already there”
Posting this kind of information on Twitter makes it “more easy for people to access and understand it,” he adds.
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 uproar on social media.
“They’re telling us working class people to feel guilty for our annual flight on a much needed vacation while these celebrities take private jets every other day like it’s an Uber,” one user tweeted. outraged.
Neither Mr. Sweeney nor Mr. Streufert mentioned a red line they would not want to cross regarding the publication of air routes. “The data is already there. I’m just redistributing them,” says Jack Sweeney.
This activity also generates income, even if it is difficult to assess. Dan Streufert admits making a living this way, but refuses to give details, while Mr Sweeney says his flight tracking accounts earn him around $100 a month. Flightradar24 does not communicate on its turnover.
Beijing is cracking down
Flight tracking can also have a big impact beyond the ire of celebrities and billionaires, as shown by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan, whose flight was being tracked. by more than 700,000 people on the Flightradar24 site at the time of its landing.
In August, an NGO report accusing the European border surveillance agency, Frontex, of facilitating the refoulement of migrants attempting the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean was based on data from ADS-B systems, as well as American media used it to denounce the presence of surveillance flights during anti-racism demonstrations in Washington in 2020.
Dozens of elected members of the US Congress had, after these revelations, urged in a letter the FBI and other government agencies such as the National Guard to “stop monitoring peaceful protesters”.
Elsewhere in the world, governments have made it clear that these techniques and this type of data are not welcome. Chinese state media reported in 2021 that the government had seized hundreds of receivers used by real-time flight tracking sites, under the guise of a “spy” risk.