Sunday, December 18, 2022

Is plane tracking doxing? How public data enraged Elon Musk.

Twitter suspended a college student and journalists for sharing information about his private jet

The Washington Post
By Pranshu Verma and Rachel Lerman 
December 17, 2022 at 7:00 a.m. EST

The whereabouts of Elon Musk’s private jet are based on public data — that Musk banned from Twitter this week.

Flight data for aircraft from Musk’s shiny multimillion-dollar Gulfstream G650 jet to commercial planes has long been public. Now Musk, who acquired Twitter for $44 billion in late October, is asserting that disclosing the location of his jet amounts to doxing, a form of online harassment that involves the sharing of personal information in a way that could spur harm.

On Wednesday, he suspended the popular @ElonJet account. On Thursday, he suspended the accounts of several reporters who had been writing stories or tweeting about the episode. Some of those were restored early Saturday.

“Same doxing rules apply to ‘journalists’ as to everyone else,” he said in a tweet on Thursday. “They posted my exact real-time location, basically assassination coordinates.” The Washington Post saw no evidence that the reporters did what he claimed.

The internet has made vast amounts of data public, from property records to family ties, as well as phones that post people’s locations in real time. Sometimes, the data empowers scammers and criminals. But there are limits to the value of the data — it can be outdated or false. And in the case of publicly available flight information, it reveals the location of the aircraft, not its passengers.

While Twitter has abruptly changed its rules to prevent accounts from sharing live location details, it cannot stop the torrent of aviation hobbyists who track jets and post information elsewhere.

Musk and Twitter did not immediately return a request for comment.

Here is an overview of what’s going on with tracking Musk’s personal jet and how people follow it.

What is @ElonJet?

At the center of the storm is a Twitter account called @ElonJet.

It’s an automated account that used publicly available air-travel data to chart the whereabouts of Musk’s private jet. It was created in 2020 by Jack Sweeney, a sophomore at the University of Central Florida. He said it is likely the data was available on websites such as Open Sky Network before he created the tool.

The Twitter account gained steam as people used the account to track where Musk might be. The tracker didn’t necessarily prove he was onboard the plane and provided no details on who flew with Musk or his final destination after landing, though Musk often tweeted about where he was, which could be corroborated with data from his jet.

Musk offered Sweeney $5,000 to buy @ElonJet, the former news site Protocol reported in January, but the deal fell through because Sweeney wanted $50,000. “Can you take this down? It is a security risk,” Musk added in a direct message cited by Protocol. “I don’t love the idea of being shot by a nutcase.”

But shortly after taking over Twitter, Musk said @ElonJet could remain because he believed in free speech. “My commitment to free speech extends even to not banning the account following my plane, even though that is a direct personal safety risk,” he tweeted in November.

On Wednesday morning, the account, which had amassed nearly 530,000 followers, was suspended for breaking Twitter rules, without the company identifying what they were. Shortly after that, Sweeney’s personal account was also suspended.

The bans took place a day after Twitter changed its policy on sharing “live location” information.

How does jet tracking work?

Jet tracking is a popular hobby.

At its core, publicly available data is used to do it. Popular sites like Flightradar24 can use information provided by the Federal Aviation Administration. The planes of notable people often don’t show up there because they can hide their plane’s tail number through an FAA program called Limiting Aircraft Data Displayed.

Airliners, private jets and hobbyist Cessnas broadcast their locations over the radio using an onboard system called ADS-B Out, often required by the FAA and foreign aviation agencies to fly. Hobbyists listen to those broadcasts and pool the results in shared databases like ADS-B Exchange, giving such sites a nearly complete look at civilian air traffic worldwide.

The information is tied to the airplane’s tail number, which the scanners can track. Since the data is culled from public scanners, it’s harder to hide their plane from showing up, though a new industry-friendly FAA program could change that.

It is unclear if Musk availed himself of that program, though he asserted on Twitter that he may have. Sweeney said that even if Musk did, he could also use another public radio frequency, called ACARS, to track plane information.

The current protocol of broadcasting data about flights became the standard in the United States and internationally within the past decade or so, said Dan Streufert, the founder of ADS-B Exchange. Many air traffic control agencies worldwide use this technology to increase the safety, efficiency and visibility of planes in the sky.

Finding specific planes can be done creatively, Sweeney said. Public records requests for plane registration information can provide details. A simple Google search can reveal photos taken of celebrities, such as Kim Kardashian or Jeff Bezos, hopping off their planes, with the tail number visible.

Sweeney also ran accounts tracking the location of Bill Gates’s and Bezos’s private jets. Both accounts have been suspended. (Bezos owns The Post.)

Once the tail number has been procured, hobbyists can write code that pulls plane data from websites like ADS-B Exchange. To find out what airport it is near, they program software to cross-reference a plane’s coordinates with openly available airport location data, such as from

“It’s all out there,” Sweeney said in an interview. “It’s just like investigative journalism … you have to connect the dots.”

What is doxing, and what is Musk saying about it?

Musk is arguing that sharing the location of his private jet on Twitter constitutes doxing.

Doxing does not have one definition, researchers say, which is part of the reason the term can be used in such varied rhetoric online.

Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami who studies the intersection of civil rights and technology, said she thinks of doxing as “making individual personal information publicly accessible in a way that is likely to cause them unjustifiable harm.” That can take many forms, she notes, including sharing others’ personal information to purposefully cause harm or in a reckless manner that could lead to harm.

Doxing can cause real world danger — people have had to flee their homes and change their information because of doxing.

The information shared showed where Musk’s private plane had landed and did not include static personal information about the public figure, such as his home address. Musk later claimed that a car carrying his child in Los Angeles was “followed by crazy stalker.”

The billionaire then posted a video of a man in a car and showed his full license plate number.

“Musk is very fond of using concepts that people may be sympathetic to and just completely changing their definitions,” Franks said.

Is tracking private jets legal?

Streufert, of ADS-B Exchange, knows of no laws that prevent people from accessing publicly broadcast information, such as flight movements.

“It’s public data, mandated to be broadcast,” Streufert said. The FAA collects the information to improve “safety and efficiency in the air and on runways,” it says online. The FAA did not respond to a request for comment.

ADS-B Exchange uses 10,000 receivers from around the world that collect information, and sells the data to companies that may be tracking jet fuel usage or mapping drone delivery routes.

“If we receive a public signal from public airwaves, we put it up there,” he said.

Musk speaks to journalists, he claims 'doxed' him

In a brief Twitter Spaces appearance Thursday night, Musk reiterated that sharing real-time location information is not acceptable on Twitter.

“You dox, you get suspended. End of story. That’s it,” he said. He abruptly dropped off the chat as a journalist tried to ask a follow-up question.

Jeremy Merrill contributed to this report from aboard an aircraft located at 34.506°, -82.822°, according to

“Can you take this down? It is a security risk.”


  1. Musk is in the FAA PIA program. The Elonjet twitter guy figured out which PIA ICAO hex code Musk's jet was given under that privacy program by examining PIA coded aircraft in flight and then bragged about having figured it out.

    Figuring out PIA coded aircraft is okay for your own enjoyment, but delivering that brute-forced sleuthing to your public web page would seem to be willful harassment after being asked to stop. The suspended accounts that were dogpiling Musk about the tracking tussle didn't understand that PIA hex codes are not publicly disclosed.

    1. False. Musk's jets have not been using PIA ICAO hex codes and can easily be tracked on adsbexchange by their registered tail numbers. Example:

      More info:

      Even if he did use PIA, this video explains how it would be easy for anyone to figure out his PIA code and track it:

  2. Is the kid jealous of Elon and the other he was doxxing?

    1. Jet tracker kid had 30 twitter accounts doing that for various aircraft. Latest on camera interview included "pay me $50,000 and I will stop" extortion request. Will eventually lead to legislative changes to punish obvious bad behaviors like this.