Opinion: Flight Tracking Enthusiasts Outsmart Privacy Programs

Raspberry Pi devices, such as this, and other low cost computing equipment are being used to track private jet flights around the world. Credit: Jessie Naor

Jack Sweeney, a college student studying computer science and an aviation fan, quickly gained internet fame and media attention through his Twitter bots, such as @CelebJets, that posts flights, Jet A Fuel consumption and carbon emissions of celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Tom Cruise and others.

His feed and others like his are fueling the recent media storm surrounding the carbon emissions of private jet owners.

Sweeney’s 124,000+ Twitter followers make him one of the most high-profile trackers, but he’s the first to admit he’s not the only one. 

Since ADS-B became mandatory in January of 2020, flight tracking enthusiasts have been growing in number and feeding flight data from home receivers to sites, such as  ADS-B Exchange.

The site claims that more than 7,000 users feed data into its system. “The position data shown by ADS-B Exchange is available to anyone who can spend $50 on Amazon and put the parts together,” it says. 

With thousands of people tracking flights and using aggregated flight data, celebrities and other high-profile fliers who use business jets are worried about the ongoing privacy and security benefits of owning a jet. 

When asked if there are ways to secure the flight data from the public, Sweeney replied in an interview with BCA that “it’s not that hard, really.”

Privacy Comes in Layers

The FAA operates programs to block data from public view, but those programs have significant limitations. 

The LADD program (Limiting Aircraft Data Displayed) only blocks aircraft data from commercial subscribers who receive their data feeds from the FAA, as they are bound by their data publishing agreements to block those aircraft from public view.

But sites such as ADS-B Exchange do not rely on the FAA’s data as they act as a co-op, aggregating feeds from their thousands of users. Sweeney also publishes a copy of aircraft listed on the LADD list to help fellow trackers.

Another FAA program is PIA (a Privacy ICAO Address), which allows an aircraft owner to use alternate ICAO addresses not tied to the aircraft’s original registration.

However, since many jet owners are not using the PIA program, it can be relatively easy to filter aircraft activity by those using a PIA address. For public figures traveling in a large business jet from a major city to another major city for high profile meetings, even with a private identifier, it doesn’t take too much digging to figure out who is on the aircraft.

Today, PIAs can only be changed every 60 days and there aren’t many operators using the program, which gives trackers time to sift through PIA flights and identify owners. Industry trade groups and the FAA have been working to transition this program to a third-party provider that can change ICAO privacy addresses to every 20 days or less. 

Ownership Documents

With every aircraft registration, the legal entity that owns the aircraft can be found from many sources, including through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the FAA. Steps taken from the purchase of the aircraft are needed to block efforts to make private information public. 

Jack Sweeney’s Twitter bot @ElonJet, for example, tracks Elon Musk’s aircraft. They were easy to track initially as the registered owner was a subsidiary LLC of SpaceX, and quickly found through the FAA’s registry and public records. Options, such as trustee services and double-trusts offer further protections, but nothing is bulletproof because of the number of filings with many agencies required to operate an aircraft, many of which are “FOIA-able.”

In combination, LADD, frequent PIA updates, carefully planned documentation and surveillance of tracking sites can offer reasonable protections to the most famous private jet fliers, but aircraft management groups and legal teams need a coordinated effort to achieve this. The alternative is charter or fractional ownership. However, this method of flying has some limitations because it doesn’t provide the depreciation advantages of aircraft ownership. 

Fliers who may not be as famous also should be aware of the impact of data being publicly available and easily accessible. Businesses and corporations working on key deals, particularly to remote headquarters, could be tracked for competitive purposes. 

Some fliers, including U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, have accepted a lack of privacy and point out that private travel is “the only choice.” Kerry has drawn criticism for flying by private jet, especially given his work to reduce greenhouse emissions. In reports, Kerry has said that he purchases carbon offsets to offset emissions. 

Sweeney confirmed that while there are thousands of users sending feeder data to websites, thousands more are using and sorting the data. Some are doing it for fun and some for profit. Sweeney says he aims to bring light to the environmental impact of these flights to create change.

He also has begun offering a way for private jet fliers to offset their carbon emissions through his new venture, Offset4Jets, saying he created the company to “provide a solution to the issue.” Others are offering similar services.

Private aviation is an absolute necessity to many. Publicly embracing jet ownership and buying carbon offsets may be the only reasonable solution to the new reality of public flight data. 

Jessie Naor is president of GrandView Aviation, a subsidiary of AirMed International and Global Medical Response. She serves on the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) board of directors, and as vice chairman of the Air Charter Safety Foundation board of governors.