The practice is growing all over the world and is beginning to seriously annoy senior Chinese officials, business leaders and starlets. Tracking the private jets of billionaires through sites or Twitter accounts that track air traffic in real time provokes epidermal reactions, from simple complaints to seizures of equipment.

Every year Russian air cargo companies, Saudi aircraft owners or others ask Dan Streufert, founder of the American flight tracking site ADS-B Exchange, to stop publishing their movements. Without success.


Public and legal sources of information

“We haven’t deleted anything so far. This is public information. And I don’t want to be the arbiter who decides who is right or wrong,” says Streufert. Some limitations exist, but groups that reconstruct flight paths point out that the primary source of information is legally available and accessible to anyone with the necessary equipment.

US law requires aircraft in certain areas to be equipped with the ADS-B satellite system, which periodically radios the aircraft’s position to air traffic controllers. A site like Flightradar24 has 34,000 ground receivers around the world that can pick up such signals, data sent to a central network and cross-referenced with flight schedules and other aircraft information.

$5,000 to bury a Twitter account

Identifying the owner of a plane is a different matter, according to Jack Sweeney, 19, creator of the ‘Celebrity Jets’ Twitter account, who unearthed Elon Musk’s private jet after a request to the archives. US government public. The boss of Tesla offered him 5,000 dollars to bury the “ElonJet” account, more than 480,000 subscribers, which follows all the movements of the multi-billionaire’s plane.


“He’s got so much interest, I’m doing something that works. People like to see what celebrities are doing, that, and the emissions stuff,” Sweeney told AFP, referring to outrage over the carbon footprint of planes. Posting this type of information on Twitter makes it “more easy for people to access and understand it,” he adds.

“The data is already there”

In July, the ‘Celebrity Jets’ account revealed that reality TV star Kylie Jenner had taken a private jet for a 17-minute flight to California causing uproar on social media. “They tell us working class people to feel guilty for our annual flight on a much needed vacation while these celebrities take private jets every other day like it’s an Uber,” one user tweeted. outraged.

Neither Mr. Sweeney nor Mr. Streufert mentioned a red line they wouldn’t want to cross regarding the publication of air routes. “The data is already there. I’m just redistributing them,” says Jack Sweeney. This activity also generates income, even if it is difficult to assess. Dan Streufert admits making a living this way but refuses to give details while Mr Sweeney says his flight tracking accounts earn him around $100 a month. Flightradar24 does not communicate on its turnover.


Geopolitical consequences

Flight tracking can also have a big impact beyond the ire of celebrities and billionaires, as US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan on Tuesday, whose flight was followed by more than 700,000 people on the Flightradar24 site at the time of its landing.

In August, an NGO report accusing the European border surveillance agency, Frontex, of facilitating the refoulement of migrants attempting the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean was based on data from ADS-B systems, as well as American media have used it to denounce the presence of surveillance flights during anti-racism demonstrations in Washington in 2020. Elsewhere in the world, governments have made it clear that these technologies and this type of data are not welcome.

Chinese state media reported in 2021 that the government had seized hundreds of receivers used by real-time flight tracking sites, claiming a “spying” risk. “In a lot of cases, it’s the authoritarian regimes that don’t like this kind of visibility,” says Dan Streufert.