This week saw a headline in a few media outlets about a teenager in the US who set up a Twitter-bot to track Elon Musk’s private jet. (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/jan/31/teenager-seeks-50k-delete-twitter-bot-tracking-elon-musk-private-jet)
While the content is correct, the headline and messaging is somewhat misleading, and the context is everything.
Flight tracking works through combining several public aviation surveillance data sources, such as radar, scheduling, and airline flight status data, into a flight tracking service provider, such as Flightradar24 or ADSBExchange. But the key to real-time flight tracking rests in a relatively new technology called ADS-B, or automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, which has allowed Elon Musk’s private jet to be tracked.
ADS-B is a surveillance technology in which electronic equipment onboard an aircraft automatically broadcasts the precise location of the aircraft via a digital data link (Airservices Australia, 2022). These signals can be picked up by ADS-B receivers on the ground (and in the air, for increased situational awareness and safety) and fed to flight tracking service providers who are able to overlay this information in real-time, accurate positions of aircraft. ADS-B is increasingly mandated by civil aviation authorities, with “roughly 70% of all commercial passenger aircraft equipped with an ADS-B transponder (Flightradar24, 2022). General aviation is far lower, while military aircraft may disable ADS-B for tactical reasons.
Ultimately, ADS-B is a safety-enhancing technology that improves the situational awareness of airborne aircrew. Some flight tracking websites do allow flights to have their ADS-B information not shown, but in the case of Elon Musk’s jet tracking Twitter-bot, ADSBExchange does not allow this.
Real-time flight tracking should not be portrayed as a safety or security risk, as it really is an airborne safety-enhancing capability. A privacy issue, perhaps, but aviation safety arguably takes precedence.