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Thursday, Feb 09, 2023

Elon Musk and Donald Trump are trying new ways to dodge jet tracking — but it's not a 'silver bullet'

Elon Musk and Donald Trump are trying new ways to dodge jet tracking — but it's not a 'silver bullet'

Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Donald Trump are all subjects of jet-tracking accounts on social media that expose their habits to the world.

Elon Musk has suspended over 30 jet-tracking accounts on Twitter, but the data is still public on multiple social media sites — something that celebrities have been fighting since long before the billionaire bought the platform.

20-year-old Jack Sweeney made headlines for publicly tracking Musk's private aircraft on Twitter, and his other accounts like Trump Jets and Zucc Jet, which follow Donald Trump and Mark Zuckerberg, respectively, also gained a following on the platform. All three of those accounts were booted off of Twitter this week, but remain active on Discord.

Because of rising privacy concerns, some billionaires, celebrities, and businesspeople have started looking at various ways to dodge the trackers.

LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault is one: He recently sold his private aircraft so "no one can see where I go," and he now rents jets instead. Apple CEO Tim Cook also only charters private jets as of 2017, with the company citing "security and efficiency" reasons.

Meanwhile, other high-profile people like Taylor Swift and Kylie Jenner — who were slammed over the summer for taking hundreds of flights per year — are using the FAA's free "Limiting Aircraft Data Displayed" program, or LADD, to avoid trackers. Trump's Trump Force One plane is enrolled in the program, as is Oprah Winfrey's. 

The program allows private aircraft owners to block their planes from being publicly shown on websites like FlightAware and FlightRadar24, which use FAA data. 

But their plans for secrecy are being thwarted by aircraft-tracking website ADS-B Exchange. ADS-B is able to broadcast planes' whereabouts because it doesn't rely on FAA data, and thus is not subject to the FAA's privacy programs.

This means even planes that are part of LADD can be tracked by anyone with a smartphone or computer, and it is exactly the source Sweeney used for his myriad jet-tracking Twitter accounts.

Puma/Jay Z's jet tracked on ADS-B Exchange with LADD indicator.

Sweeney has even created a "LADD List" website that acts as a registry of aircraft that are part of the FAA's program and shows all the planes that are, or once were, part of LADD.

"The LADD list isn't so helpful because the plane is still identifying itself through ADS-B Exchange," Sweeney told Insider.

Some jet owners have started looking into another track-blocking option: the FAA's privacy ICAO aircraft address program, or PIA.

According to the agency, private plane owners can apply for a temporary aircraft registration number that is not currently attached to any plane, meaning they can basically fly incognito. The FAA told Insider it has issued over 300 PIAs to date.

However, Sweeney told Insider that even those aircraft can be tracked using ADS-B Exchange, as shown by a screenshot shared with Insider that shows Musk's jet flying on May 7 with no callsign and no tail number, but with "PIA" flagged. Sweeney's Elon Jet Twitter bot also recorded the flight.

Elon Musk's private jet flight with PIA flag, tracked by Jack Sweeney.


"These privacy mitigation programs are effective for real-time operations but do not guarantee absolute privacy," an FAA spokesperson said. "A flight can still be tracked in other ways such as a Freedom of Information Act request, www.LiveATC.com, ADSB Exchange, or a frequently departed airport."

With jet tracking becoming a major problem for the wealthy, the FAA has opened discussion on how to better block websites like ADS-B Exchange. At the National Business Aviation Association's conference in mid-October, the FAA talked about how to mitigate real-time tracking, but admitted: "There are no silver bullets."

Jack Sweeney at the NBAA conference in mid-October in Orlando.


Sweeney shared a slide from the FAA's presentation at the conference with Insider, which outlined ways the planes can still be tracked, like via LiveATC, which is real-time air traffic control conversation, and common departure airports.

"Elon Musk, for example, has a Gulfstream and there's only so many people that fly that particular plane out of Brownsville, Texas, and fly to the same airports," Sweeney told Insider.

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