Who Is Watching You? ADS-B raises aircraft tracking issues (again)

Kent S. Jackson | June 10, 2016

ADS-B raises aircraft tracking issues (again)

There is a growing awareness and concern that those who have asked that ATC tracking data be blocked from dissemination on the Internet are now subject to exposure through growing networks that capture their Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) transmissions. Today, there are thousands of aircraft tracking capture sites receiving data from unwitting operators.

Flightradar24 and FlightAware appear to be the biggest players in the ADS-B tracking world and they have endeavored to be good citizens. Both have voluntarily blocked tail numbers. (Flightradar24 assisted with accident investigations, for instance.)

Flightradar24 states: “Privacy advocates will be pleased to know that Flightradar24 charges no fees to block the tail numbers of business jets based on an internal list of aircraft types the company put together, as well as the FAA’s list of blocked tail numbers, and direct requests from operators.”

For its part, FlightAware states that it “is subject to a number of government laws and regulations surrounding the distribution of flight data. In many cases, sensitive [e.g., military] flights are not available for tracking as well as private aircraft whose owners have opted out of public flight tracking.” However, it goes on to say that its “users and customers who share data with FlightAware may be able to track these flights on their own equipment, independent of FlightAware.”

If you know enough about the technology, you can get completely unfiltered aircraft tracking data without the aid of FlightAware or Flighttradar24. Several websites for the truly techno-savvy explain how to “track planes for $20 or less.” If you happen to be a “Linux kernel developer” you can indeed create your own ADS-B tracking devices for $20, and have control over how you filter the information for your own curiosity. In other words, without a filter, the tracker will not only see all the ADS-B-equipped business aircraft that requested “blocking” of their tail numbers, but you also will see military aircraft movements, and presumably even Air Force One. With the same $20 gadget, you also can receive weather balloon data, decode digital voice communications and do budget radio astronomy…

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