Science

Billionaires Annoyed by Online Flight Tracking

JIM WATSON/AFP Billionaire Elon Musk speaks at a press conference at the SpaceX launch pad in South Texas, USA, in February 2022.

JIM WATSON/AFP

Billionaire Elon Musk speaks at a press conference at the SpaceX launch pad in South Texas, USA, in February 2022.

ENVIRONMENT – How to piss off top Chinese officials, Elon Musk and Kylie Jenner? Track their private jets. In the midst of the climate and energy crisis, websites and Twitter accounts that monitor the air traffic of businessmen in real time are being especially monitored, and this popularity is drawing the ire of the respective individuals.

US law requires aircraft in certain areas to be equipped with the ADS-B satellite system, which periodically relays the aircraft’s position to air traffic controllers. A site like Flightradar24 has 34,000 ground receivers around the world that can receive these signals, data sent to a central network and correlated with flight schedules and other aircraft information.

In France, the Instagram account “laviondebernard”, a page designed to track all the movements of LVMH boss Bernard Arnault, has revealed the sometimes ultra-short air travels of the world’s richest Frenchman in recent months, as you can see in the video below. For example, on May 28, a businessman made a ten-minute journey between West London and East London on his plane.

$5,000 to bury ElonJet’s Twitter account

Every year, Russian air cargo companies, Saudi Arabian aircraft owners and others ask Dan Streufert, founder of the American flight-tracking website ADS-B Exchange, to stop publishing their whereabouts. Unsuccessfully. “We haven’t removed anything yet. This is public information. And I don’t want to be the arbiter who decides who is right and who is wrong,” says Dan Streufert.

There are some restrictions, but flight path reconstruction groups note that the primary source of information is legally available and available to anyone with the right equipment.

Identifying the plane’s owner is another matter, according to 19-year-old Jack Sweeney, creator of the “Celebrity Jets” Twitter account, who discovered Elon Musk’s private jet after querying the US government archives. Tesla’s boss offered him $5,000 to bury the “ElonJet” account, with over 480,000 followers, that tracks all the movements of the multi-billionaire’s plane.

“He has such a great interest, I do something that works. People like to see what celebrities are doing and also about emissions,” notes Jack Sweeney, referring to the outrage over the carbon footprint of aircraft. Posting this kind of information on Twitter “makes it easier for people to access and understand it,” he adds.

“The data is already there”

In July, the Celebrity Jets account reported that reality TV star Kylie Jenner boarded a private jet for a 17-minute flight to California, sparking a social media uproar. “They are telling us working class people to feel guilty about flying our annual much needed vacation while these celebrities fly private jets every other day like it’s Uber,” one user ranted.

Neither Jack Sweeney nor Dan Streufert mentioned a red line they didn’t want to cross in regards to publishing flight routes. “The data is already there. I just redistribute them,” says the ElonJet founder.

This activity also generates income, even if it is difficult to estimate. Dan Streufert admits he made his living this way but refuses to go into details, while Jack Sweeney says his flight-tracking accounts brought him about $100 a month.

Flightradar24 does not report its turnover

Flight tracking can also have a big impact, beyond the wrath of celebrities and billionaires, as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan in early August, followed by more than 700,000 people on Flightradar24, showed during its landing.

In August, an NGO report accusing the European border agency Frontex of facilitating the expulsion of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean was based on data from ADS-B systems, and the US media used it to condemn the presence of surveillance flights during anti-racist demonstrations in Washington in 2020.

Dozens of elected members of Congress followed the revelations in a letter calling on 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 technologies and this type of data are not welcome. In 2021, Chinese state media reported that the government had confiscated hundreds of receivers used by real-time flight tracking websites under the guise of risking “espionage”. “In many cases, it is authoritarian regimes who do not like this appearance,” says Dan Streufert.

See also The HuffPost: Elon Musk opens Tesla plant in Texas and thinks big

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