(Written by Neil Vigdor)
For Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla and founder of SpaceX, traveling by private jet isn’t such a private endeavor. Jack Sweeney, 19, a freshman at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, has been tracking a Gulfstream G650ER he identified as Musk’s private jet and posting maps of its whereabouts on a popular Twitter account since June 2020. .
Musk isn’t the only famous person followed by the annoying wingman, who thwarted efforts by Musk and others to cover up his movements on aircraft-tracking apps and websites. Meddlers can also keep up with Drake, Mark Cuban, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates on Sweeney’s other accounts.
Sweeney said Wednesday that he was able to track them using data from his plane’s transponders, a public record that includes the plane’s altitude, latitude, longitude and heading, an algorithm and a bot he created. But Musk was pretty upset about the flight-tracking tactic, Sweeney recalled in an interview, saying he received a direct message on November 30 from the billionaire on Twitter asking him to deactivate the @ElonJet account.
“I said, oh my gosh, Elon Musk just DMed me, ‘Can you please delete this? It’s a security risk,’” Sweeney said. “Then he offered me $5,000 to take it down and help make it a little harder for the ‘crazies to track me down.'” Sweeney provided screenshots of the exchange to The New York Times, which was unable to independently verify their authenticity.
Musk did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment on Wednesday, not even to say whether he sent the messages. The exchange highlighted the tension between open public records and privacy, and it wasn’t the first time famous people had been traced. Journalists have used flight tracking apps to follow politicians ahead of vice presidential picks. Investors use them to follow CEOs and learn about corporate mergers. Sports fans have used them to track down the coaching candidates of their favorite teams.
Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, declined to comment Wednesday. Representatives of Bezos, the founder of Amazon; doors, one of Microsoftthe founders of; and Drake, the hip-hop mogul, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington whose focus is the technology and its legal implications, said Wednesday that the Federal Aviation Administration requires planes to transmit location data to avoid collisions and help find lost aircraft. “What this teen is taking advantage of is a lack of foresight on the part of the FAA that this would become a privacy issue for some people,” Calo said.
When asked for comment Wednesday, the FAA said the situation was outside the scope of the agency’s authority. Calo was amused that a teenager would hear directly from Musk. “There could hardly be a greater power asymmetry between Musk and this teenager,” Calo said. “This is not David and Goliath. This is like Goliath and a flea on David.”
Sweeney said that he was falling asleep when his Android The phone rang at 12:19 am on November 30. She had been in his bedroom, where several posters promoting SpaceX, Musk’s space exploration company, were hanging on the wall above his bed, according to a photo shared on Sweeney’s personal Twitter account.
Sweeney made a counteroffer to Musk, according to screenshots from the exchange, saying he would leave the account if Musk raised the bet to $50,000. He said that he would also accept a Tesla Model 3, an electric car that costs more than $38,000, adding that he was joking.
In the exchange, Sweeney was asked how he had been able to track down Musk. He explained that he had obtained the data from the plane’s transponder. Told that paying to have the Twitter account shut down didn’t seem right, Sweeney had another proposition: How about an internship? The exchange, which went on for more than a month, fell silent after January 23.
Sweeney downplayed privacy and security concerns associated with his Musk tracking account, which has more than 305,000 followers. “It’s a private jet, so it goes directly from the jet to the car,” he said, adding that he has long been fascinated by tracking planes. “I don’t think it’s a big concern. Some people are just interested in seeing where it goes.”
Sweeney said he obtained the data for his aircraft tracking accounts from the ADS-B Exchange, which describes itself on its website as the world’s largest source of unfiltered flight data.
Dan Streufert, the founder of ADSBexchange.com LLC, said in an email Wednesday that anyone with basic electronic devices would be able to get signals from planes broadcasting their locations. Information is also available by listening to air traffic controllers, he added. “However, it’s important to note that our website tracks aircraft, not individuals,” Streufert said. “We cannot tell who is or is not on the plane. Musk’s companies own and operate many aircraft, this is just one of them. Mr. Musk may find Mr. Sweeney’s paparazzi-like activities disturbing, however, this information is already public from a myriad of sources.”
Calo said that as long as Sweeney didn’t create the flight tracking accounts to demand money from Musk and others, it would be difficult to make a criminal extortion case. “You would have to create this damage on purpose and keep it on someone,” he said.
Calo said it would be difficult for a public figure like Musk to bring a civil lawsuit against Sweeney alleging that his privacy had been violated. “So I think there would be real obstacles to trying to pursue this child, civilly,” he said. Still, he warned that Sweeney could expose himself to litigation if he takes it too far. “That’s quite a ride,” he said. “You just have to proceed carefully from here.”
After Sweeney’s last message to Musk on January 23, the exchange had a certain finality. “You can no longer message this person,” read an automated Twitter message.