A 19-year-old built a flight-tracking Twitter bot. Elon Musk tried to pay him to stop.
‘I’ve put a lot of work into it, and $5k is just really not enough.’
“Can you take this down? It is a security risk.”
That’s how Elon Musk opened a conversation with 19-year-old Jack Sweeney over Twitter DM last fall. He was referencing a Twitter account, called @ElonJet, which tracks the movements of his private jet around the world.
It was a late-night message, coming in at 12:13 a.m. Sweeney’s time, but the college freshman didn’t lose any sleep. His reply, nearly seven hours later: “Yes I can but it’ll cost you a Model 3 only joking unless?”
@ElonJet is one of 15 flight-tracking accounts Sweeney has created, run by bots he’s programmed to parse the data and tweet every time a chosen plane takes off or lands. Each one follows a high-profile person, almost all in tech, including Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. But Musk’s tracker is the most popular, with nearly 83,000 followers.
The account's popularity appears to have scared Musk. “I don’t love the idea of being shot by a nutcase,” he told Sweeney in their DM conversation.
The conversation continued for a few more messages. Musk asked Sweeney how much he made off the Twitter accounts, which Sweeney said was no more than $20 a month. Then Elon Musk made his own offer: $5,000 to delete the account and help the billionaire keep “crazy people” from tracking his location. Sweeney told Musk to add another 0. “Any chance to up that to $50k? It would be great support in college and would possibly allow me to get a car maybe even a Model 3.”
Musk said he’d think about it. But so far, he hasn’t paid Sweeney a dime, and the account is still running. Sweeney says he’s okay with getting ghosted. He’s benefited a lot from @ElonJet and the other accounts, he said: He's gained social media followers, learned how to code and even scored a part time job at UberJets as an application developer. Better yet, the self-described Elon Musk “fan” got to have a conversation with a man he’s looked up to for years.
Though the Twitter accounts haven’t led to any dangerous incidents so far, at least according to Sweeney’s knowledge and information available online, Musk does have a point. Celebrities getting ambushed at airports — by fans, by people who want to sell their autograph, paparazzi, stalkers and the like — is certainly a thing. And Musk and other tech CEOs have become bona fide celebrities in recent years. (Protocol contacted SpaceX’s media team to ask whether there had been any violent incidents or threats — one of the only remaining ways for the press to contact Musk after he dissolved Tesla’s PR team last year — but got no response.)
But Twitter bots don’t get starstruck. They’ve just gone on parsing the data Sweeney’s told them to. The 15 bots use FAA information when available — the administration keeps track of when and where planes depart and land, as well as their intended path. However, Musk’s plane and many others are on the LADD block list, which removes identifying information from the data.
Even blocked planes aren't truly private, though. In these cases, Sweeney uses data from the ADS-B transponders present on most aircraft which show a plane’s location in the air in real time as charted on the ADS-B Exchange. Parsing this information is like a logic puzzle: Sweeney’s bots can use a plane’s altitude, combined with how long ago the data was received, to determine when it is taking off or landing. They can then cross-reference latitude and longitude with a database of airports to determine where the plane is leaving or headed. And though Sweeney’s bots can’t pull from blocked FAA data to figure out where a plane plans to go, they can cross-reference the real-time ADS-B data with another website that posts anonymized versions of the FAA flight plans. This allows the bot to match the plane it is tracking in real time to the anonymized FAA flight plans and determine each plane’s intended destination. This information is all entirely public, and can be used to track most private aircraft.
It’s a loophole in high-profile security that has only flown under the radar because one needs a lot of industry-specific knowledge to know all this data was available and public, and to understand how to parse it. Sweeney had that context: His father works in the airline industry, and Sweeney has been tracking planes since he was a child. Like many young boys, he says he would try to identify types of planes as they flew across the sky, often checking his guesses against what he could find in online flight tracker apps.
Once Sweeney explained to Musk where he was finding the data, the entrepreneur was surprised by how accessible it all was. “Air traffic control is so primitive,” he said.
The most recent DM Musk and Sweeney exchanged was last Wednesday, when Sweeney said he’d prefer an internship over payment in return for deleting the account. Musk hasn’t opened the message, Sweeney says, but he’s not offended. In fact, he thinks he knows why Musk went silent: “I think he’s on vacay in Hawaii if you check ElonJet.”