Billionaires, Hollywood celebrities, and climate activists share fame, fortune, and a profile they work hard to control. All of which is why so many are calling on a public company not to track their flights and expose their carbon footprints.
AFP reports flight-following websites and Twitter accounts that offer real-time views of air traffic are on the end of regular pushback ranging from complaints to gear seizures by those who would rather their movements are not in the public domain.
One U.S.-based group alone gets dozens of “requests” each year to stop posting aircraft flight movements, according to its organiser, Dan Streufert.
“We have not removed anything so far. This is all public information. And I don’t want to be the arbiter of who’s right and who’s wrong,” added Streufert, founder of flight tracking site ADS-B Exchange which can track any flight from a private individual to a politician, star, activist or member of Royalty.
The AFP report sets out limits do apply in some cases, but groups that piece together the flight paths note the core information source is legally available and open to anyone with the right gear to take it fully into the public domain.
Under U.S. rules, planes in designated areas are required to be equipped with ADS-B technology that broadcasts aircraft positions using signals that relatively simple equipment can pick up. It outlines what happens next:
A service like Sweden-based Flightradar24 has 34,000, mostly volunteer-operated receivers around the world to pick up the signals, a key source of information that’s routed back to a central network and combined with data on flight schedules and aircraft information.
Figuring out or confirming to whom a plane actually belongs can require some sleuthing, said jet tracker Jack Sweeney, who filed a public records request with the US government that yielded a form bearing the signature of a particular plane’s owner: Tesla boss Elon Musk.
Sweeney has drawn attention with his Twitter account that tracks the movements of the billionaire’s plane and even rejected Musk’s offer of $5,000 to shut down @ElonJet, which has over 480,000 followers.
“There’s so much traction, I’m doing something right. The celebrity thing –- people like seeing what celebrities are doing, that and the whole emissions thing,” he told AFP, referring to concerns over the planes’ greenhouse gas impact.
“Putting it on Twitter makes it easier for people to access and understand,” Sweeney added.
Another of Sweeney’s Twitter accounts, powered by data from ADS-B Exchange, showed in July that U.S. model and celebrity Kylie Jenner’s plane took a flight in California that lasted just 17 minutes, as Breitbart News reported.
The internet was not pleased.
The star quickly faced a torrent of criticism on social media over concerns about the message it sent regarding climate change while others pointed to the sheer hypocrisy involved.
Jenner was labeled a “climate criminal” for the rather quick private jet flights with her boyfriend Travis Scott, in a response that followed one drawn by Taylor Swift for her frequent hops by private jet.
“They tell us working class people to feel bad about our once a year flight to a much needed vacation while these celebs take private jets every other day as if it’s an Uber,” tweeted @juliphoria, in another example of the outrage.
“We will track anything because honestly, if somebody really was a bad actor, and they wanted to know where this stuff is, you can build the electronics for $100 and just deploy receivers to pick up the same signals yourself,” said Streufert from ADS-B Exchange, acknowledging the data is already out there. It just needs to be distributed.
Climate activists have also been called out after being tracked taking multiple flight in their private jets they once through were entirely private matters, as Bill Gates has been forced to acknowledge.
In some parts of the world, governments have made clear the technology and resulting information is not welcome and is ready to move against it – by force if necessary.
Chinese state media reported in 2021 the authoritarian Communist government had confiscated hundreds of receivers used in crowd-sourced flight tracking, citing the risk of “espionage.”
“In many cases, it’s authoritarian regimes that don’t like this exposure,” Streufert said.