The practice is growing all over the world and is beginning to seriously annoy senior Chinese officials, business leaders and starlets. Tracking the private jets of billionaires through sites or Twitter accounts that track air traffic in real time provokes epidermal reactions, from simple complaints to seizures of equipment.
Each year, airlines Russian air cargo, Saudi aircraft owners or others are asking Dan Streufert, founder of the US flight tracking site ADS-B Exchange, to stop publishing their whereabouts. Without success.
Public and legal sources of information
“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. Some limitations exist, but groups that reconstruct flight paths emphasize that the primary source of information is legally available and accessible to anyone with the necessary equipment.
U.S. law requires that aircraft in certain areas are equipped with the ADS-B satellite system, which periodically sends the position of the aircraft by radio to air traffic controllers. A site like Flightradar24 has 34,000 ground receivers around the world that can pick up this type of signal, data sent to a central network and cross-referenced with flight schedules and other aircraft information.
$5,000 to bury a Twitter account
Identifying the owner of a plane is another matter, according to Jack Sweeney, 19, creator of the Twitter account “Celebrity Jets”, which unearthed Elon Musk’s private jet after a request for information from the US government’s public records. The boss of Tesla offered him 5,000 dollars to bury the “ElonJet” account, more than 480,000 subscribers, which follows all the movements of the multi-billionaire’s plane.
“It arouses so much interest , I’m doing something that works. People like to see what celebrities are doing, that, and the emissions stuff,” Sweeney told AFP, referring to outrage over the carbon footprint of planes. Posting this type of information on Twitter makes it easier for people to “access it and understand it,” he adds.
“The data is already 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 uproar on social media. “They’re telling us working class people to feel guilty about our annual flight on a much needed vacation while these celebs ride 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 have earned him around $100 a month. Flightradar24 does not communicate on its turnover.
Flight tracking can also have a significant impact beyond the ire of celebrities and billionaires, as shown by the controversial visit of the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan on Tuesday, whose flight was followed 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 relied 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. Elsewhere in the world, governments have clearly shown that these technologies and this data type were not welcome ues.
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 “d ‘spying “. “In many cases, it is the authoritarian regimes that do not like this kind of visibility”, underlines Dan Streufert.