How Elon Musk and Donald Trump dodge jet-trackers on Twitter by flying incognito – but does it work? LVMH boss Bernard Arnault and Apple CEO Tim Cook prefer to rent planes instead
American programmer Jack Sweeney has created a myriad of Twitter accounts that track private jets, like Elon Musk’s. To dodge Sweeney and other trackers, many celebrities have signed up for free federal programmes that help them fly incognito.
So, how does it work exactly?
Jet-tracking wunderkind Jack Sweeney
Sweeney helped ignite the trend in early 2022 when he made headlines for publicly tracking Elon Musk’s Gulfstream 650ER.
The 20-year-old uses a public website called ADS-B Exchange, which was founded in 2016 by IT professional Dan Streufert, to track the tail number, and a bot automatically uploads the flights to @ElonJet on Twitter.
The website aggregates flight information with the help of over 7,500 volunteer-run radios around the world that receive information from ADS-B-equipped aircraft, Streufert told the Airplane Geeks podcast.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, ADS-B broadcasts information like GPS location, altitude and ground speed from one plane to ground stations and other aircraft. This happens once per second.
The FAA required all operators to equip their aircraft with ADS-B technology by 2020 to fly in most controlled airspace. The agency says the move improves safety and efficiency, particularly in high-traffic airports like New York and Miami.
The process is legal as ADS-B Exchange does not use FAA data to show the aircraft, unlike websites like FlightAware and FlightRadar24.
Sweeney rejected Elon Musk’s offer
Musk in January offered Sweeney US$5,000 to take the jet-tracking account down, but Sweeney requested US$50,000 and Musk said he would think about it.
Musk never followed up. Now, the account has nearly 500,000 followers.
Mark Cuban provides business advice instead
Mark Cuban in June even made a deal with Sweeney to give him a lifetime of business advice to stop tracking his travel, which Sweeney agreed to.
Since he made headlines, Sweeney’s myriad other jet-tracking accounts have gained popularity, including @TrumpJets at about 10,000 followers and @ZuccJet has about 16,000 followers.
A job offer out of the viral saga
While Sweeney says he does not make any money off the accounts, the 20-year-old said he got a job offer from Stratos Jet Charters out of his work. He is currently a second-year at the University of Central Florida studying computer science.
With the gaining popularity, Musk has expressed concern that the ElonJet account could pose a security issue.
PR issues for celebs
Various programmes to dodge jet trackers
The Federal Aviation Administration has created a programme called “Limiting Aircraft Data Displayed”, or LADD for short. Because they use FAA data, websites like FlightAware and FlightRadar24 will not show LADD-registered planes.
If, for example, someone searched for Trump’s 757 tail number – N757AF – on FlightAware, the screen would say the plane “is not available for public tracking per request from the owner/operator”.
Trump, along with Travis Scott, Drake, Steven Spielberg and dozens of others, have signed up for the free programme in an effort to dodge the tracking accounts of Sweeney and others.
Sweeney has even created a “LADD List” that houses all of the tail numbers that he estimates have signed up. Drake’s Boeing 767 private jet, dubbed “Air Drake”, is on the LADD list.
While this seems like a reliable way to avoid being tracked on the surface, Sweeney is thwarting their plans by using ASD-B Exchange. The website does not use FAA data, so it can display any flight regardless of if it is on the LADD list or not.
Streufert, who runs the ADS-B Exchange website, says it’s gathered from “all public information”, according to an interview with the AFP. “We have not removed anything so far,” he said. “And I don’t want to be the arbiter of who’s right and who’s wrong.”
So, unfortunately for private jet owners, LADD isn’t going to cut it. But, there is another free FAA programme they can use that is more secure.
The programme is called the “privacy ICAO aircraft address programme”, or PIA. This allows people to substitute their tail number for a temporary one not assigned to any other aircraft, allowing them to fly incognito.
Celebrities like Musk and Trump have enrolled in PIA. The FAA says more than 300 PIAs have been issued since its launch in December 2019.
Musk actually sought advice from Sweeney on how to avoid being tracked and the mogul suggested PIA, as shown in a Twitter direct message exchange Sweeney shared with Insider.
However, despite having PIA, the planes can still be followed: “These privacy mitigation programmes are effective for real-time operations but do not guarantee absolute privacy,” the FAA told Insider.
For example, Musk flew from Texas to California on May 7, and while ADS-B Exchange did not display the real tail number, it flagged the jet as PIA and it was still uploaded to @ElonJet by Sweeney’s bot.
The FAA also noted that a Freedom of Information Act request, LiveATC, and frequently departed airports can also be used to identify PIA planes. LiveATC allows anyone to tap into the conversations between air traffic control and aircraft.
“Elon Musk, for example, has a Gulfstream and there’s only so many people that fly that particular plane out of Brownsville, Texas and fly to the same airports,” Sweeney told Insider.
Who needs private jets?
With all of the loopholes to the FAA’s privacy programmes, the agency admits it is not a “silver bullet”, prompting some celebrities and big names in business to ditch owning private jets altogether.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has been renting private planes since 2017, with the company citing “security and efficiency” concerns.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, Meta switched out Zuckerberg’s private jet, forcing Sweeney to find the plane’s new tail number all over again just months after he first started sharing the Facebook founder’s travel on Twitter.
- Jack Sweeney is a computer science student who uses ADS-B technology to legally track the private jets of Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg
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