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.’

Elon Musk pouts.

Elon Musk considers the Twitter account a security risk.

Photoillustration: Brendan Smialowski/AFP and Getty Images Plus; Protocol

“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.”

Workplace

An IPO may soon be in Notion’s future

Notion COO Akshay Kothari says there’s room to grow, aided by a new CFO who knows how to take a company public.

Notion has hired its first chief financial officer: Rama Katkar.

Photo: Courtesy of Notion

It’s been a year since Notion’s triumphant $275 million funding round and $10 billion valuation. Since then the landscape for productivity startups trying to make it on their own has completely changed, especially for those pandemic darlings that flourished in the all-remote world.

As recession looms, companies looking to cut costs are less likely to spend money on tools outside of their Microsoft or Google workplace bundles. Enterprise platforms are bulking up and it could spell trouble for the productivity startups trying to unseat them. But Notion COO Akshay Kothari says the company is still aiming to build the next Microsoft, not be the next Microsoft. And in a move signaling a new chapter of maturity, Notion has hired its first chief financial officer: Rama Katkar, Instacart’s former VP of finance.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Sponsored Content

Great products are built on strong patents

Experts say robust intellectual property protection is essential to ensure the long-term R&D required to innovate and maintain America's technology leadership.

Every great tech product that you rely on each day, from the smartphone in your pocket to your music streaming service and navigational system in the car, shares one important thing: part of its innovative design is protected by intellectual property (IP) laws.

From 5G to artificial intelligence, IP protection offers a powerful incentive for researchers to create ground-breaking products, and governmental leaders say its protection is an essential part of maintaining US technology leadership. To quote Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo: "intellectual property protection is vital for American innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Securing the Enterprise

Securing the enterprise

There’s no let-up in the surge of cyberattacks against businesses. But shutting down the hackers will require many enterprises to evolve their strategy.

In today’s enterprise, “identity and security are very merged.”

Illustration: iStock/Getty Images Plus; Protocol
the Protocol team
Protocol focuses on the people, power and politics of tech, with no agenda and just one goal: to arm decision-makers in tech, business and public policy with the unbiased, fact-based news and analysis they need to navigate a world in rapid change.
Fintech

How neobanks are helping consumers game credit scoring

The CFPB says it is closely monitoring secured credit cards offered by neobanks.

Regulators are scrutinizing neobanks' card offerings.

Photo: Oscar Wong/Moment/Getty Images

About one in six Americans has a credit score below 619, according to the CFPB. Another 23% have too thin a credit file to score or no file at all. That puts them in a credit trap: To build credit, these consumers need someone to give them a line of credit with which they can demonstrate good financial habits. But with scores that low, few lenders are prepared to offer them anything.

Neobanks say they can solve the problem through a new twist on secured credit cards. But regulators are already scrutinizing their offerings.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

Policy

Steel decided World War II. Chips will decide whatever is next.

“Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology” foreshadows the coming battle between nations over semiconductors.

“Chip War” outlines the nature of the coming battle over semiconductors, showing how the power to produce leading-edge chips fell into the hands of just five companies.

Image: Scribner; Protocol

“World War II was decided by steel and aluminum, and followed shortly thereafter by the Cold War, which was defined by atomic weapons,” Chris Miller, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, writes in the introduction to his latest book. So what’s next? According to Miller, the next era, including the rivalry between the U.S. and China, is all about computing power.

That tech rivalry and the story of how the chip industry got from four to 11.8 billion transistors are all part of Miller’s book, “Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology,” which comes out Oct. 4. “Chip War” outlines the nature of the coming battle over semiconductors, showing how the power to produce leading-edge chips fell into the hands of just five companies: three from the U.S., one from Japan, and one from the Netherlands.

Keep Reading Show less
Hirsh Chitkara

Hirsh Chitkara ( @HirshChitkara) is a reporter at Protocol focused on the intersection of politics, technology and society. Before joining Protocol, he helped write a daily newsletter at Insider that covered all things Big Tech. He's based in New York and can be reached at hchitkara@protocol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins