Censorship fears emerge over Elon Musk’s jet tracking system

Will Elon Musk’s plane get harder to track? The system on which the famous Twitter account that annoyed the American billionaire is based has been acquired by a company. Some fear that the service will censor certain flights.

This is a phenomenon that has excited aviation enthusiasts since January 25: will it be more difficult to follow the jet movements of some personalities like Elon Musk? That’s the background to the question raised by Jetnet’s announcement of the acquisition of its ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) platform for an undisclosed sum.

For those unfamiliar with ADS-B, it’s the equivalent service to sites like FlightRadar24 and FlightAware. It allows you to see the position of the aircraft on the map of the world – ADS-B Exchange – with various flight data (registration, speed, altitude, model, etc.). Among other things, you can see where it starts and its route.

ADS-B Interchange card. // Source: Screenshot

What makes this platform special is its 100% community nature, Wired noted in its January 29 issue. Volunteers around the world are installing relatively cheap or easy-to-build receivers. Data from the aircraft mid-flight is captured in real-time and then sent back to the ADS-B Exchange.

It is then up to the platform’s software to process all the data sent to it to display a consistent image on a map that can be used and understood by the public. FlightRadar24 and FlightAware are also partially run by volunteers, hobbyists or not. Some of their information comes from tapes provided by authorities.

ADS-B Exchange transitions to corporate control

But here is where the concern lies. Jetnet is a private company and has been owned by the private equity firm Silversmith Capital Partners since July 2022. For Internet users affected by ADS-B, this is definitely a bad sign. There will be censorship sooner or later. Obviously, some flight information may not be public right now.

Aircraft owners can apply to the US Civil Aviation Authority (FAA) to have their flight paths masked so that they are not visible to the public. The FAA may respond to this request from time to time, and sites such as FlightRadar24 and FlightAware follow suit.

Ocean's 13. // Source: Warner Bros.
With global warming, the issue of airplanes has become central. // Source: Warner Bros.

But the ADS-B Exchange takes a different policy, refusing to hide flight data. With ADS-B being unencrypted, anyone with a simple receiver can pick up the data transmitted by the aircraft. It’s not really possible to censor the upstream in ADS-B today. But downstream, this is possible by controlling a card like ADS-B Exchange.

At a time when the topic of private jets has become a symbol of the challenges of combating climate change, it is far from a neutral issue. Proponents of stricter regulation or even a ban on these flights believe that this would be a powerful lever to reduce pollution in the air sector and thus achieve emissions reduction goals.

A 2021 report found that a passenger on a private jet was 5 to 14 times more polluted than a passenger on an airplane. Accounts on Twitter have flourished in recent years to challenge these ultra-rich passengers and condemn some seemingly absurd thefts. The planes of Bernard Arnault (the president of LVMH) and Elon Musk were targeted.

Elon Musk opposes the publication of this information

It turns out that Elon Musk has expressed his opposition to this type of broadcasting – indeed bots created by the likes of @ElonJet specifically rely on ADS-B data. In 2022, the American entrepreneur who owns Twitter banned the controversial account citing personal safety (the broadcast was in real time) and adopted a rule prohibiting the sharing of space.

The story sparked a debate over issues of privacy, personal security, and access to public information. In France, Cnil summarized the issues, showing the difficulty of arbitrating between human rights and those related to information, as in the delicate issue of the right to be forgotten on the Internet.

Elon Musk and the owner of the @ElonJet account published their disagreements in separate messages. To circumvent the former’s arguments, the latter’s strategy was to suggest another account on Twitter. @ElonJetbut it’s late. Principle? Delay the publication of messages about the routes of the billionaire’s plane for 24 hours. There is no such personal safety risk.

Elon Musk is trying to say that what I wrote is not public information. ADS-B is on all public frequencies and is purchased by organizations such as the ADS-B Exchange. This is similar to saying AM or FM signals [pour la radio, NDLR] is not public and receiving frequency is private “, Jack Sweeney was annoyed.

An example of theft
An example of Elon Musk’s jet flight as watched by Jack Sweeney. // Source: Instagram/ElonJet

As Wired says in its review, the topic goes beyond the reach of just wealthy Western travelers. The presence of ADS-B is also a subject of geopolitical tension, with powers such as China or Saudi Arabia looking down on the platform. Beijing has banned the receivers, while Riyadh has advocated global regulation of ADS-B.

The arrival of Jetnet and Silversmith Capital Partners calls into question the transparency that the ADS-B Exchange may still have in the long term and the impact that new owners may suffer. ” My fear has always been that someone will come along and destroy everything we’ve built “, – James Stanford, one of the administrators of the site, testified.

However, there is a more immediate risk to ADS-B Exchange: Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attacks.

The day after the announcement of the platform takeover, Jack Sweeney noted that “ someone is running DDOS on ADS-B Exchange DDOS is saturating his 10 gigabit connection […] No data from ADS-B streams “. The story did not say whether it was a humorous gesture by an angry shopping enthusiast or whether the attack was carried out with other motives.

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