Science

Billionaires outraged by online tracking of their private jet flights

How to annoy both high-ranking Chinese officials, Elon Musk and Kylie Jenner? Track their private jets. Sites and Twitter accounts that monitor air traffic in real time provoke epidermal reactions, from simple complaints to confiscation of equipment.

Every year, Russian air cargo carriers, Saudi Arabian aircraft owners and others ask Dan Streufert, founder of the American flight tracking website ADS-B Exchange, to stop posting their movements. 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.

Legally accessible information

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.

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.

$5,000 from Elon Musk to bury an account

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 love to watch what celebrities are doing and anything that has to do with emissions,” Jack Sweeney told AFP, referring to the outrage over the carbon footprint of airplanes.

Posting this kind of information on Twitter “makes it easier for people to access and understand it,” he adds.

Kylie Jenner’s 17 Minute Flight

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.

Revenue-generating tracking

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 distribute them,” says Jack Sweeney.

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.

Hundreds of receivers seized

Theft tracking can also have a big impact, beyond the wrath of celebrities and billionaires. 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.

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