Open Flight Data
or "Won't someone think of the billionaires?"
There has been a lot of stuff happening over on Twitter lately. The latest version has been centered around a data issue: flight data. Although it may sound like people are having debates around free speech and doxxing and what-have-you, the reality is that the core of the issue is around open data.
And man do these people have it wrong.
As far as I can tell, David Sacks used ‘assassination coordinates’ first, and now Elon Musk is using it. What they are referring to is the location of Elon Musk’s private jet. There are dozens of flight trackers on the internet, and Elon has long been critical of them, claiming they create a safety risk for him and his family if people can readily access information about where he is.
Musk has claimed that a person jumped on the hood of a car that was carrying his son. This is what kicked off this whole debacle as Musk is implying that this action is linked to data about him being publicly available.
Musk has taken this opportunity ban various accounts that share flight tracker data, the most salient (and probably the first to get the axe) being the much ElonJet. ElonJet is run by Jack Sweeney, who is a student at UCF with an interest in aviation. His site, ground control, includes information on his program, and how he was able to capture the data. As you can clearly see, he is gathering public information and presenting it in a way that is easily understandable by the public. Many additional bans have come, including of journalists who covered ElonJet without directly sharing the flight data.
Your very favorite gimmick account has somehow evaded the hammer despite sharing a link to ElonJet’s github.
To be as clear as I can be: all of this data is completely open. Despite what David Sacks says here:
Firstly, flight data is not really PII. Personal Identifiable Information usually refers to information that would tell you who a person is, such as someone’s name, email address, or any other information that would tell you who someone is, not necessarily what someone is doing. It’s also weird that Sacks is showing the definition used by the Department of Labor, but I’m guessing it’s because that’s the first thing he found when he googled and didn’t want to check any further. The Federal Aviation Administration is the regulatory body that covers aircraft, and unfortunately they don’t make their policies public
A quick search of the FAA website reveals this lovely little piece of information. This explains that aircraft registration records are public because there is a strong public interest in having those records public, whether buying a plane or doing historical research. Here is what they have to say about PII
The entire aircraft registration database is available for download on the Registry website. Occasionally, items of sensitive PII are submitted for inclusion in the aircraft record either deliberately or inadvertently. Sensitive PII, such as Social Security Numbers, is not necessary to accomplish aircraft registration and is not solicited or protected by the Registry. When sensitive PII is received in the Registry, it is considered to have been knowingly submitted to a public record. Such submission to a known public record is considered tantamount to permission to release the PII. Any individual whose sensitive PII appears in the aircraft record may request the redaction of that information. The Registry will take immediate action to redact sensitive PII that is not necessary to maintain the integrity of the aircraft record.
Tl;dr > if you don’t want your PII public, don’t submit it to the public database.
And the government is not “leaking” PII. This is a wildly inaccurate way to describe the process that is going on.
Every plane that operates in the US is required to utilize an ADS-B system. ADS-B works by transmitting data about the aircraft, including GPS location data, every single second. This means that to operate a plane in the US you must broadcast your location at all times, to other planes and to air traffic control. Why? To reduce collisions.
This means that every plane in the US is telling us their location every single second. It is picked up by radio receivers in other planes as well as air traffic control towers. But because of how it is broadcast anyone can pick this information up and use it. and again, this is true of Every plane. Every single second.
And it’s used by tons of people for tons of reasons. It’s incredibly useful for tracking your own flights if you are wondering if you may end up delayed. It’s useful for safety reasons as well. Wondering how often a plane was used? Well you can check their logs publicly. Law enforcement agency needs to know where a plane is? Data is public.
It’s also useful for open source researchers.
Like, this stuff even includes military planes.
You can use the database yourself if you can stop laughing. It’s really fun and is a really fantastic use of data visualization.
And the thing is, the FAA knows that there are privacy concerns and have attempted to address them.
ADS-B Out operates by transmitting the aircraft's unique ICAO aircraft address, making identification by any individual with an ADS-B receiver possible. Real-time tracking of the geographic location of a specific aircraft is possible, generating privacy concerns for the aircraft operator community. The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), and members of the General Aviation (GA) community have cited the lack of privacy as a barrier to ADS-B Out equipage.
In order to mitigate these concerns, FAA has initiated the Privacy ICAO aircraft address program with the objective of improving the privacy of aircraft operators in today's ADS-B environment by limiting the extent to which the aircraft can be quickly and easily identified by non-U.S. government entities, while ensuring there is no adverse effect on ATC services.
Later Sacks tried to clarify that the FAA should not publish ICAO addresses. But that is literally what the PIA programmed is named. It’s right there. Privacy ICAO Aircraft address.
I’m not sure if Musk knows about this? It’s certainly possible that Elon is referring to this program in this tweet:
But it’s unclear. ElonJets has been able to track him anyway. Theoretically this program would give him a privatized sign that is not linked to his registration numbers that are identifiable in FAA databases. Except I was able to look into track them just based on the numbers provided on the FAA database so it’s unclear to me what he means by this. From what I can tell you would need to regularly update this number to ensure privacy since there are a lot of data published regarding the plane itself. And if you tend to follow a pattern then people can figure it out.
If you want to know, A plane owned by Musk flew from Austin to San Jose last night, with a short stop in Nevada.
Why are they worried about assassination coordinates when they take no steps to conceal themselves? Also to be clear we are really only able to track this as Musk because he is using a private jet. That allows people to know that he is the owner and therefore is potentially the person who uses the plane. If he flew commercial we would not know through this method that he is on one of these flights.
Using this data is also how members of Bellingcat’s Discord channel were able to determine that the timeline of events leading up to Musk’s freak out over this data doesn’t make a lot of sense. Assuming that the event in question happened, that would be awful. No one should harass someone that way, and it’s especially scary if there was a kid in the car, as the kid is completely innocent no matter how you look at it.
Flight track data shows his plane landing at LAX around 4 A.M. And the geolocated gas stationwas at least a half hour away. It is also not clear if Musk was there or not. Based on his story though, it seems like flight tracking was not how this person was made aware of the car.
[edit: according to the Washington Post the person in question was potentially the stalker of his ex wife, Grimes. This makes more sense on the merits, and Police seemed to confirm that to WAPO. Considering the inconsistencies in the story that we have accumulated here, this version of the story is more believable]
At the end of the day this is just Musk and his buddies doing a giant “won’t someone think of the billionaires” and trying to get useful public data less public because it inconveniences them.
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Personally I found this blog helpful https://simpleflying.com/how-does-ads-b-work/ but the FAA also has a lot of information here https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/technology/adsb
It remains incredible to me how easily people can geolocate you with the smallest details. They used 3 points to find the gas station. It was an 11 second video. If you don’t want your location found, never share anything. Case in point from Bellingcat again