Elon Musk and the dangers of censoring real-time flight trackers

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

Here’s the offending tweet: A link to one of the few websites that provides real-time private flight flight data, which Elon Musk wrote, “didn’t fumble over the funnel of his flight data.”

Musk accused these flight trackers of providing “essentially assassination coordinates”. Crusade against these apps and anyone who shares them on his recently acquired social media platform. Accounts like mine have been shut down, while others have been banned entirely—from the @ElonJet bot, which shared the location of Musk’s private jet, to the reporters who followed his campaign. Twitter’s rules were quickly rewritten to prohibit anyone from posting their “actual location”.

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

As of Monday, after a poll asking users when he should lift an account suspension, Musk reinstated some — but not all — of those accounts.

Lost in the chaos is how well Musk suppressed real-time flight data on the Internet. In doing so, it takes aim at an incredibly valuable source of information—one that has helped researchers, journalists, and experts on everything from tracking Russian oligarchs to investigating the fate of missing planes to tracking down international killers. Musk isn’t the only person trying to keep this kind 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 major flight-tracking platforms: FlightAware and FlightRadar24.

FlightAware reports that its real-time data on Musk’s plane is unavailable “due to European government databases,” while its historical data about the plane’s comings and goings has been removed “at the request of the owner/operator.” A search for Musk’s plane on FlightRadar24 returns the message: “We couldn’t find the data.”

Even smaller tracking platforms, such as AirportInfo — the account that led to my Twitter lock — have taken Musk’s flight information offline.

“The constant hype around the location of Elon Musk’s plane has caused us to stop showing his plane for the time being,” says Christian Romes, an AirportInfo official. “Because Musk is threatening legal action, we don’t want to take any risks.”

While Romes says his office has not received any communication from Musk’s legal team, they took this step as a precaution. “Don’t mess with the (formerly) richest man in the world,” he says.

Aircraft operators are required to provide detailed information on their flight path to various national regulators, including the Federal Aviation Administration. This data is generally a matter of public record and is posted on various websites that are popular among aviation enthusiasts.

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

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