A college student who was able to track wealthy private jet owners—including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos—is likely to spur an industry push to stop such activity. Industry officials say the safety and security of high-profile private jet users, their families, flight crews, staff at the airports they are using, and potential corporate espionage is at stake.
In a series of online messages, Musk offered 19-year-old Jack Sweeney $5,000 to stop tracking his private jet flights. The billionaire Tesla founder cited safety concerns, and Sweeney countered, asking for $50,000. According to reports, Musk has since ghosted Sweeney, who was quoted as saying he plans to turn his hobby into a business. His attempts to joust with one of the world’s richest men may find him on the wrong side of a hot-button security issue that dates back more than two decades.
“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. These concerns have been repeatedly reflected in bipartisan congressional legislation requiring the FAA to provide an opt-out from real-time flight tracking,” says Dan Hubbard, spokesperson for the National Business Aviation Association. “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.”
According to Josh Wheeler, Director of Cybersecurity Solutions at Satcom Direct, knowing where and when a jet is landing makes it an easy target for hackers who can position themselves near where the plane is parking and potentially breach passengers’ electronic devices.
Andy Priester is CEO of Chicago-based Priester Aviation, which manages 72 aircraft for owners says, “The potential to compromise safety and security is real. The analogy is no different than a deadbolt stops honest people, but it won’t stop people who want to rob the house. This gives them a tool to rob the house. As an industry, we can never encourage that.”
Dan Drohan, CEO of Solairus Aviation, which has 270 jets under management, adds, “We need an industrywide coalition. This is a huge priority for us and our clients.” Calling it an “illegitimate business,” he wants the FAA to shut down trackers like Sweeney.
Via LADD, short for Limiting Aircraft Data Displayer, aircraft owners submit requests to the FAA to limit aircraft data shared through FAA data systems. However, according to NBAA, LADD only addresses the use of data through FAA systems. Third parties can capture ICAO aircraft addresses directly from ADS-B Out transmissions.
To close that loophole, the FAA created Privacy ICAO address or PIA. It enables owners to use temporary ICAO aircraft addresses that aren’t tied to an operator in the Civil Aviation Registry. NBAA recommends, “For the maximum level of privacy, operators should participate in both the LADD and PIA programs.”
However, Sweeney tells Forbes that since the sources he uses, including ADS-B Exchange, don’t use FAA feeds, he doesn’t believe there is any recourse or ways to stop what he is doing. He also says that none of the owners whose private jets he tracks have threatened legal action. The college student says reporting that he started tracking more UHNWs after his @elonjet website gained notoriety are not true. He says his current accounts were created months ago.
Sweeney adds despite the exchange with Musk, he doesn’t plan to charge the people he is tracking to take down their accounts. He is selling merchandise, receiving donations, and getting ad money based on the traffic he is generating.
Asked if he is concerned that there could be civil liability if his data is used for nefarious purposes, specifically after an individual as Musk asked him to remove it for security reasons, he says, “I am considering delaying it 24 hours…possibly taking it down.”
David Hernandez, an aviation attorney with Vedder Price and former prosecutor at the FAA as well as a DOT Honors Attorney, predicts, “The loophole will be fixed.”
So far, Sweeney says he hasn’t accepted any job offers from his newfound fame.