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Private Jet Tracking: How It Happens And How To Stop It

No foolproof way exists to avoid public monitoring of your aircraft, though complex arrangements can make such snooping difficult.

Nineteen-year-old Jack Sweeney made headlines recently for creating Twitter accounts that track private jets owned by people like Elon Musk and Bill Gates. Musk offered him $5,000 to delete the account, but Sweeney claimed to be having so much fun keeping tabs on the billionaire’s jet, a Gulfstream G650ER, that the money wasn’t enough to motivate him to stop. 

Aircraft tracking services like FlightAware and Flightradar24 have been around for a while. They make it easy to monitor flights by airliners as well as private jets using information provided by the FAA. But if you plug the tail number of Musk’s Gulfstream into FlightAware, you will see a message indicating that it is not available for public tracking on the request of the owner/operator.

That’s because the FAA offers a service called LADD (Limiting Aircraft Data Displayed) that restricts the availability of flight data (what used to be called “blocking”), including tail numbers. Thus, using LADD, aircraft owner/operators can minimize access to their flight data by internet subscribers who use FAA data for tracking. Blocking is easy to accomplish and can be authorized on the FAA website, by email, or by sending a letter to the agency. 

Musk obviously availed himself of this service, so how did Sweeney obtain his flight information? The answer is complicated. Some internet services don’t follow LADD because they don’t obtain their flight information from the FAA; they get it directly from the airplanes. Most aircraft are equipped with ADS-B Out, pursuant to which an onboard Mode S transmitter sends out a unique code every second with current flight information, including altitude and GPS location. The code is tied to the airplane’s tail number and can be tracked on ground-based devices available to the public. For example, the website of ADS-B Exchange, which describes itself as “the world’s largest source of unfiltered flight data,” relies on a “community of volunteers and feeders hosting airplane tracking equipment all over the globe.” 

Information obtained from a website like this can facilitate Twitter accounts like Sweeney’s; ADS-B Exchange doesn’t use FAA data and is consequently not obligated to abide by the LADD list. FlightAware and Flightradar24 also use ADS-B data, but since they employ FAA data as well, it is possible—either by contacting these websites directly or through the LADD list—to block their access to the tail number.

Efforts to Prevent Tracking

Naturally, many business jet owners are unhappy that their flights can be tracked, and the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) has been working with the FAA for a long time to find ways to protect the privacy of an aircraft owner’s flight data in the age of ADS-B Out. Several years ago, the FAA created the Privacy ICAO Address (PIA) program, permitting jet operators to use temporary aircraft codes that are not linked to tail numbers. Getting into the program is not a simple process, however, and requires time to furnish the relevant information, receive a PIA code, reprogram the ADS-B transponder, and do a flight test.

Unfortunately, even the PIA isn’t foolproof. It’s still possible to figure out through direct or online observation what aircraft registration number the new code is associated with. During the initial PIA phase, a new code can be obtained after six months. (That period will eventually be reduced to 30 days.) Further, the PIA applies only to flights within the territorial airspace of the United States; for international flights, operators have to use the Mode S number permanently assigned to their aircraft.

A worldwide system designed with appropriate protections (like encryption) against flight tracking no doubt lies far in the future. Meanwhile, the FAA and NBAA have renewed their effort to find ways within the FAA to protect the privacy of flight information. For example, the Mode S code that is displayed on the FAA registry website might be linked to a number specific to the aircraft that—unlike the registration number—is not publicly available. This would make it harder, though not impossible, to link the two numbers. 

A response independent from the FAA may be needed, though. One possibility is to make private tracking of flight information using receptors of ADS-B Out transmissions unlawful, but it would probably be harder to track the trackers than for them to track the flight data. However, it would not be hard to track the dissemination of such flight information on the internet, so it might make more sense for the public dissemination of such data to be unlawful without the operator’s prior permission.

Disclosure of flight information is of little value if no one knows whose aircraft it is, so to the extent possible, jet buyers interested in anonymity should take care to prevent (or at least make difficult) public disclosure of their ownership of an aircraft in the first place. The owner of each U.S.-registered aircraft is listed on the FAA website and is readily available by plugging in the tail number. A standard solution today is to use a so-called double-trust: one trust to hold title to the aircraft and another to be the beneficiary. (The beneficiary’s name would appear in the trust instrument for the aircraft-owning trust, which, unlike the beneficiary trust, must be filed with the FAA). The owner-trust then leases the aircraft to the beneficiary trust, which in turn subleases it to an owner-related entity that will be difficult to discover.

Why should such a complicated arrangement be necessary? Some people will no doubt argue that, even if it is reasonable to protect the whereabouts and flight information concerning private jets, their ownership should be public information. If that is the case, arrangements like the double trust should arguably be prohibited. But if that is not the case, it should be possible to offer less elaborate ways than the double-trust to ensure ownership privacy.