Aviation privacy may be revamped after teen set up tracker for private jets of Musk and Bezos

The Federal Aviation Administration shields some flight data, but coders have found ways around it

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Friday 04 February 2022 05:05
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Private jets may not be private enough, according to industry leaders, after a Florida teenager managed to go viral for tracking Elon Musk’s private plane on a dedicated Twitter account with over 300,000 followers.

“The real-time tracking and online broadcasting of business aviation flights—by anyone, anywhere in the world, with any motive—raises many serious concerns, including with regard to passenger security, safety and corporate espionage,” Dan Hubbard, the spokesperson for the National Business Aviation Association, told Forbes.

“These concerns have been repeatedly reflected in bipartisan congressional legislation requiring the [Federal Aviation Administration] to provide an opt-out from real-time flight tracking,” he added.

“This latest example of flight-stalking underscores the need to ensure that people aren’t required to surrender their personal security and safety just because they get on an airplane,” he further said.

The FAA allows various planes to shield their identity from the public on government data streams, but open-source sites like ADS-B Exchange capture public aircraft transponder data anyway, rendering these protections incomplete.

Private firms, meanwhile, offer flight tracking data to businesses as a means of keeping abreast of the movements of competitors, potentially giving a window into mergers or other strategically important information.

The issue is back in public conversation thanks to 19-year-old University of Central Florida freshman Jack Sweeney, who went viral after tweeting regular updates about the Tesla founder’s whereabouts.

Not only had the teen managed to find Elon Musk’s private jet, but he also rejected the billionaire when he offered the student $5,000 to buy the @ElonJet twitter account, citing security risks.

Mr Musk reached out to Mr Sweeney in November, offering to buy him out, which would mean “generally making it slightly harder for crazy people to track me” using flight data.

The plucky coder, however, raised the stakes: asking for $50,000 and an internship, an offer to which Mr Musk reportedly hasn’t responded.

The Florida student, who also tracks the whereabouts of jets belonging to Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos using open-source data, is selling merch about the whole debacle, featuring text that reads, “I know how high Elon is” and a picture of the chief executive smoking a joint on the Joe Rogan podcast.

He’s also received a job opportunity to work as a developer for Stratos Jet Charters, an Orlando-based firm run by UCF alums.

“Understanding that he is currently enrolled at UCF, Stratos is happy to work with him on a project basis, part-time or internship to help him further his educational goals,” Stratos chief executive Joel Thomas told the New York Post, saying that the young developer really “showed his creativity”.

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