A college student from Florida, in the United States, has made a habit of irritating some of the richest and most powerful people in the world. As? He shares where their private planes are and how much carbon the jets emit.
Jack Sweeney would like to clarify some details of the work he does.
On the one hand, he believes singer Taylor Swift has some good songs. On the other hand, he believes, despite the constant threats of legal action, that anyone should be able to see where the artist’s jet flies and how often she travels.
“I like to be fair,” he tells the BBC via email. “I try to share everyone’s information, no matter who they are.”
But it is specifically information about the location of the private planes of the rich and powerful, published on social media, that has repeatedly made the 21-year-old the target of news reports and legal threats.
Sweeney is the son of an airline operations controller and a teacher, and grew up in the Orlando suburbs. He says he has always been interested in aviation and technology, and particularly in the companies SpaceX and Tesla, which belong to Elon Musk.
These interests gradually led him to develop an airplane tracking website, TheAirTraffic.com, and social media profiles that track the aircraft of celebrities, politicians, tycoons and oligarchs.
The system is based on publicly available data collected by amateur enthusiasts. During travel, planes regularly send information about their location, and these signals can be picked up by people using simple, inexpensive receivers on the ground.
This group of plane trackers is part of a larger community known as Osint (open source intelligence). It is populated by people who delve into vast volumes of freely available online data in search of incriminating, insightful, or simply interesting information.
It is a heterogeneous group, including a variety of individuals, from the mildly curious to dedicated researchers and committed journalists.
“Originally, I was just doing it as a hobby because I thought it was interesting,” says Sweeney, who is currently in his third year studying information technology at the University of Central Florida in the US.
As time went on, he found a more specific purpose. He says he believes “in the importance of transparency and public information.”
And there’s an environmental angle to Sweeney’s approach. “Users of private jets and planes are trying to hide the negative impact of emissions [de carbono].” The data collected by the platform created by the student was used in studies that show the enormous carbon footprint of Swift and her entourage.
The singer maintains that she purchased enough carbon offsets to neutralize the emissions from her last tour twice. But there are also privacy issues at play. Swift, through her lawyers, claims that revealing the location of the singer’s private plane puts her at risk.
In a letter revealed for the first time by the American newspaper The Washington Post, the singer’s lawyers argued that tracking the plane was a “matter of life and death” and that there was “no legitimate interest or public need for this information, other than to stalk, harass and exercise dominance and control.”
Sweeney rejects these claims and says there is a fundamental public interest in locating the pop star’s plane. The evidence he presents? The swifties themselves, as the singer’s fans are described.
“Their fans are really interested,” he says. “These tracking accounts consistently have more supporters and fans [do que detratores].” And given her world tours and numerous public appearances, including during important NFL games, it’s relatively easy to figure out where Swift will be at some point in the future, argues the student.
In the last two weeks, for example, numerous reports have been published about how she could travel between two important commitments, a show this Saturday (10) night in Tokyo, Japan, and the Super Bowl this Sunday (11), in Las Vegas , in the United States.
The Super Bowl is the final of the American football league and is among the most watched sporting events in the world.
Much of this public information is more granular than the location of a plane. Flight data can show who owns an aircraft and where it is in the sky, but not who is in it, or where those people travel after the plane has landed.
But Swift’s legal representatives say the plane’s information provides exact times and locations of the singer’s movements, and note that an alleged stalker was recently arrested outside her New York home.
The star’s publicist, Tree Paine, said in a statement: “His posts [Sweeney] tell you exactly when and where she would be.”
Sweeney also gave the star some advice, gently suggesting that if privacy is a primary concern, she could register the private jet through an anonymous corporate entity and perhaps choose an identification code that doesn’t include her date of birth and initials. her.
James Slater, Sweeney’s lawyer, says he doesn’t expect Swift to take any further legal action. “The letter was an attempt to intimidate Sweeney into doing something that he was not legally required to do,” he says. “Unfortunately, people with power and money often do this. He’s not doing anything illegal.”
Swift’s lawyers did not respond to a request from BBC News for comment. One question is whether Swift’s fan base will still follow Sweeney’s reports after the latest news.
After the story about the lawyers’ letter was published in the newspaper, there was a flurry of social media posts about the case. Some supported Sweeney, but others expressed sentiments like, “Jack Sweeney wants Taylor Swift to die like Princess Diana. I’m not going to let that happen. I’m so angry.”
But this isn’t the first time Sweeney has come under pressure from the rich and famous. When he purchased Twitter (now X) in 2022, Elon Musk promised, in the name of free speech, not to take action against the @elonjet account, maintained by Sweeney.
A few weeks later, however, Musk reversed course of action, banned the account and threatened Sweeney with a lawsuit, claiming that the information released on @elonjet resulted in a stalker tracking him down and boarding his aircraft while his young son was there. inside.
Police later identified a member of Musk’s security team as a suspect in the act and said Sweeney’s account had nothing to do with the incident.
Sweeney now runs an account that tracks Musk’s jet and releases information with a 24-hour delay, to comply with a site rule prohibiting real-time location tracking.
He also maintains accounts on several social networks that monitor planes owned by Kim Kardashian, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump, among others.
But he expressed frustration with the vagaries of social media rules, noting that Meta suspended the Facebook and Instagram accounts tracking Swift’s plane but left several other plane-tracking accounts, including those tracking Zuckerberg’s plane. .
The BBC contacted Meta to comment on the case, but did not receive a response until the publication of this report.
Meanwhile, the “jet watchers” who interact on Sweeney’s Discord server defended the student’s position, along with his enthusiasm for the hobby. Some also admitted that they are fans of Swift.
“I have no doubt crazy people sent her savage threats,” said one commenter, “but the airport is not a place where she is vulnerable.”
With reporting by Gareth Evans