Elon Musk and the Dangers of Censoring Real-Time Flight Trackers

I woke up Friday morning to the message I’d been expecting: “Your account, @Justin_Ling has been locked for violating the Twitter Rules.

Below was the offending tweet: a link to one of the few websites that provide real-time private jet flight data that “chief twit” Elon Musk, I wrote, “hasn’t bullied into suppressing his flight data.”

Musk has accused these flight trackers of providing “basically assassination coordinates.” He has launched a crusade against these apps and anyone who shares them on his recently acquired social media platform. Accounts like mine were locked, while others were banned entirely—from the @ElonJet bot, which shared the location of Musk’s private plane, to reporters who picked up on his campaign. Twitter rules were rewritten on the fly to forbid publishing anyone’s “physical location.”

The chaotic few days prompted the European Union to warn Musk that silencing journalists would likely result in sanctions from EU regulators. US Representative Adam Schiff demanded that Musk reinstate the suspended accounts and explain to Congress why he decided to retaliate against the press in the first place.

As of Monday, following a poll asking users when he should lift the account suspensions, Musk reinstated some—but not all—of those accounts. 

Lost in the chaos is just how successful Musk has been at suppressing that real-time flight data on the internet. In so doing, he’s taking aim at an incredibly valuable source of information—which has helped researchers, journalists, and experts with everything from tracking Russian oligarchs to investigating the fate of missing aircraft to tracking down international hitmen. Musk isn’t the only one trying to keep this type of information out of the public’s hands. 

Both real-time and historical information on Musk’s main private jet—a 2015 Gulfstream G650ER, tail number N628TS—is conspicuously missing from the two main flight-tracking platforms: FlightAware and FlightRadar24.

FlightAware reports that its real-time data on Musk’s jet is unavailable “due to European government data rules,” while its historical data about the plane’s comings and goings was removed “per request from the owner/operator.” Looking up Musk’s jet on FlightRadar24 returns the message: “we could not find data.”

Even smaller tracking platforms, like AirportInfo—the account that led to my Twitter being locked—have taken Musk’s flight information offline.

“The ongoing hullabaloo about the location of Elon Musk’s airplane has caused us to stop displaying his plane at the moment,” says Christian Rommes, an AirportInfo administrator. “Because Musk is threatening legal action, we don’t want to take any risks.”

While Rommes says his office hasn’t heard from Musk’s legal team, they took the step as a precaution. “Don’t mess with the (former) richest man of the world,” he says.

Aircraft operators are required to report detailed information on their flight path to various national regulators, including the Federal Aviation Administration. That data is generally a matter of public record and is published to various websites popular amongst airline enthusiasts. 

Some companies, like FlightAware, augment government data with their own sources of real-time flight information. Other websites, like planespotters.net and airliners.net, allow users to submit photos taken of aircraft as they come and go around the world.

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