Open-Source Flight Tracking: Assessing Privacy and Security Issues for High-Profile Individuals

private jet security
September 16, 2022


Articles regarding open-source jet tracking are frequently making headlines. Entrepreneur and influencer Kylie Jenner recently faced backlash for using her private jet for flights under twenty minutes, and Taylor Swift reportedly ranked as this year’s celebrity with the highest private jet carbon emissions. In August, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s journey to Taiwan via U.S. military aircraft became the most tracked plane in Flightradar24’s history with millions following her whereabouts. This month, the plane transporting Queen Elizabeth’s coffin from Scotland to London overtook Speaker Pelosi’s travel as history’s most tracked flight. We anticipate additional record-breaking numbers of people tracking flights given the increasing media and public interest.

Protocol called flight tracking the “new climate accountability tool,” as the accessibility of data enables users to observe celebrities’ carbon footprints. While flight tracking information can provide useful climate information, it can also pose high-risk threats to safety and privacy if users escalate from comments behind computer screens to the physical locations shared in real time. 

Attempts to curb flight visibility vary in their efficacy. Elon Musk offered teenager Jack Sweeney $5,000 to delete a Twitter account tracking his private jet. The account, @ElonJet, remains active and has amassed 488.6K followers watching Musk’s moves in real time. Other aircraft tracked by Sweeney’s accounts belong to Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Russian oligarchs, and he also uses Discord to share data. Owners or operators can request aircraft tracking removal from certain websites, including Plane Finder and Flightradar24, through their contact pages. However, once information is available online, it remains on the deep and dark web (DDW) and elsewhere even after deletion. 

Jet tracking accounts leverage Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) data, which is public. Aircraft are required to have a transponder, which provides highly accurate positional information. This information includes the aircrafts’ departures, altitude, fuel information, and arrivals. Although open-source flight tracking can be a useful tool for security teams to monitor principals’ whereabouts or for private individuals to track loved ones’ travels, it can also put their personal safety and security at risk. 


Security Strategies to Minimize Threats from Flight Tracking 

The increased visibility of flight location data can lead to dangerous consequences if sufficient risk management strategies are absent. We interviewed Concentric’s Protective Operations Program Manager Mike Bachich to assess the risks of jet tracking to operational security from his decades-long career in executive protection. We recommend the following strategies to manage these risks: 

  • Assess the principal’s preference for anonymity versus publicity to create a tailored risk matrix to analyze threats. Some principals prefer to maintain a low profile through private jet usage, while others enjoy posting about their travel experiences with photos and geotagged locations on social media. Ideally, avoid pictures in front of the jet or the jet center, which could expose tail numbers, the jet’s color scheme, and other details. 
  • Conduct thorough advances of jet centers, fixed-base operators (FBOs), and other premises. Understand screening policies, customs procedures, access issues, and necessary timing ahead of travel. 
  • Avoid travel patterns that could expose principals to risk. When principals repeatedly visit a location, we recommend alternating routes where possible. The goal is to disrupt bad actors’ ability to track travel patterns and expected behavior. 
  • Anticipate possible threats based on the travel itinerary. Determine whether the security team may encounter paparazzi, protests, or local persons of interest (POIs) fixated on the principal. 
  • Consider having the security team load and unload luggage to minimize the number of people with access to the principal and ensure employee vetting where possible. Maintain positive relationships with jet center staff and other partners. Employ trusted local assets when in locations unfamiliar to the security team.


How Can Concentric Help? 

Websites, such as ADS-B Exchange, publicize extensive flight data accessible by concerned parties or aircraft enthusiasts—and potentially bad actors. This increased visibility of high-profile individuals’ whereabouts heightens their security risks and possible exposure to harm. Many of Concentric’s service offerings can help mitigate these risks: 

  • Active Monitoring: Stand up active monitoring for immediate notifications of moderate- or high-risk mentions of tail numbers and principals’ travel that could escalate to threats. This service can include monitoring accounts automating flight updates and resulting engagement across surface and DDW platforms.
  • Periodic Reporting: Conduct surface and DDW periodic reporting on the volume and sentiment of tail number mentions. Concentric’s intelligence team provides daily and monthly reporting to synthesize mentions discussing principals’ travel and monitor aircrafts’ online exposure and safety. 
  • Data removal assistance: Create an overview of forums sharing tail numbers’ data for greater visibility of the data’s spread online. Operators can leverage this information to request the removal of their aircraft from certain tracking websites. 
  • Overflight assessment: Analyze potential threats along flight paths or specific segments, including the best diversionary options in emergency situations. 
  • Carbon offsetting: Investigate options to offset carbon emissions from private jet usage, which can help combat environmental repercussions and reduce negative exposure. Concentric’s Green Security team analyzes tactics to measure, reduce, and offset emissions. 

The continuous partnership among security and intelligence professionals is critical to information sharing to mitigate evolving risks during travel. Equipping skilled executive protection personnel with intelligence professionals’ suite of analytic support provides streamlined travel preparation and principal safety. As tracking tools innovate, so must security and intelligence teams to ensure people’s safety against potential travel threats. 


Author: Rachel Brooks, Intelligence Analyst, Global Intelligence 

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