Elon Musk enrolled his private jet in a federal privacy program but he failed to properly implement those privacy measures, according to documents obtained by Motherboard using a Freedom of Information Act request. Musk seemingly learned about this mistake—which allowed people to continue tracking the movements of his jet—in the midst of a December 2022 meltdown in which he banned the @ElonJet Twitter account tracking his jet, banned journalists on Twitter who linked to the account, and led a witchhunt against an alleged stalker on the social media platform.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s Privacy ICAO Aircraft Address program (PIA) allows private jet owners to essentially create a dummy or “temporary” aircraft registration number that is known only to the jet’s owner and the U.S. government. Aircraft enrolled in this program can be easily tracked by air traffic control and the federal government, but not by hobbyist flight trackers.
Essentially, this program allows the rich and famous to fly their planes without being tracked by giving them a temporary tail number that the general public can't associate with the owner of the plane. Under this program, the plane can be tracked for safety purposes, but it's essentially impossible to figure out whose plane it is.
Emails obtained by Motherboard show that SpaceX enrolled Elon Musk’s private jet in this program sometime prior to August 2022, but failed to properly implement the temporary tail number, allowing the plane to continue being tracked under its real, permanent tail number. The emails, sent between SpaceX and the FAA on the same day that Musk banned @ElonJet, show the company trying to troubleshoot the issue with the FAA to figure out why the dummy tail number wasn't working.
Additionally, a redaction error by the FAA shows that the temporary tail number for Musk’s private jet was A0FF08 at the time. The actual (and publicly known) tail number for Musk’s private jet is N628TS. It appears that Musk and SpaceX have still not fully enrolled in the PIA program because open-source flight trackers are still showing the plane's flight paths.
On December 13, Jim Wright, an FAA senior systems engineer, emailed a SpaceX worker in charge of aircraft maintenance about Musk’s private jet. “I just noticed that the latest PIA assigned to N628TS, A0FF08, was never verified,” Wright wrote. “You did install and fly it one time on 8/20/22. Can you go to the PIA website and see if you can use that flight to verify?”
Wright also sent step-by-step instructions on how to activate the temporary number: "It may be too late, I’m not sure but let’s give it a try," Wright added. "Let me know if you have any problems...if you have questions or need assistance give me a call."
“My apologies. I thought I had finish [sic] that step for it,” Perez said in response to Wright on December 14. “I will go in an [sic] do it right now. I will advised [sic] if it allows me to complete the step.”
“It is not letting me,” Perez said in another email a few hours later. “I apologies [sic] for not completing the process. Please see attempt to complete the verification. Can I go ahead and request a new PIA code? Ad [sic] we can start from scratch?”
In the FOIA documents, another listed tail number for Musk’s jet is N613YQ. Neither of the temporary tail numbers revealed in the FAA documents have been tracked by open-source flight information websites.
On the same day that Perez and Wright were emailing, Musk very publicly banned the @ElonJet Twitter account, which was dedicated to posting open-source flight information. Musk then updated Twitter’s rules to prevent users from posting real-time location information about other people and banned a half-dozen prominent journalists who criticized Musk or shared links to the Mastodon account for @ElonJet. Finally, Musk tweeted a video of a “crazy stalker” who he claims followed a car with his child in it and asked his 121 million followers to help him identify the man: “Anyone recognize this person or car?,” he tweeted.
Other FAA employees began sharing news articles about Musk banning @ElonJet. "A lot of these celebrities don’t seem to be taking advantage of all the [privacy] programs we offer," one FAA employee wrote to a group of his colleagues. "This seems to be geng a lot of steam, and I am not sure where Elon and others are going with their recent actions. I wanted to let everyone know since this may start to increase the number of inquiries from press or public we might receive."
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment. The FAA declined to comment.
The FAA’s Privacy Programs
@ElonJet tracked Musk’s jet using signals that every aircraft is required to transmit using onboard transponders called ADS-B. ADS-B signals are used for air traffic control—essentially, they are used to prevent planes from crashing into each other, and to allow air traffic controllers to see where planes are located.
“It’s important to remember ADS-B data is for safety,” Ian Petchenick, director of communications at flight tracking site Flightradar24 told Motherboard. “The signal sent from the aircraft is about keeping aircrafts safe from each other, ensuring they can operate in the same airspace safely, and maintaining air traffic control safety between aircraft. And now the aircraft themselves can talk to each other.”
Petchenick said that from a safety, operations, and efficiency perspective, ADS-B has been a massive success. It allows planes to fly more closely together and to avoid taking inefficient and long routes that would result in greater emissions and longer flight times.
Beyond the safety implications, however, ADS-B data can also be captured by receivers on the ground, which can be bought or made by anyone; there are tens of thousands of ADS-B receivers in the United States alone. This data is then aggregated by a variety of different websites and can be used to create maps of flight paths of commercial, military, government, and private aircraft. This data has been used to track military operations, travel by Russian oligarchs, celebrities, business executives, and more. Generally speaking, ADS-B tracking has led to a greater level of transparency into the actions of the rich and powerful.
Motherboard previously reported that, in 2018, SpaceX enrolled Musk’s jet in another FAA privacy program, called the Limited Aircraft Data Displayed (LADD) program. The LADD program does “source-level blocking.” In addition to ground-based receivers owned and operated by private citizens, the FAA broadcasts ADS-B data to a variety of agencies and businesses. Aircraft on the LADD list are left off the FAA data, but can still be captured and tracked by privately-owned ADS-B receivers. Flightradar24 abides by the LADD list, meaning it does not track Musk’s jet.
@ElonJet, which is still active on Mastodon, uses data from the website ADS-B Exchange, the “world’s largest source of unfiltered flight data.” ADS-B exchange boasts that “you’ll never see an aircraft censored or ‘blocked’ from our site. If one of our feeders is receiving it, the data will be there. This includes military, and other aircraft that attempt to be ‘unlisted.’”
The FAA's PIA program is designed to help aircraft owners remain private by giving them dummy tail numbers that are not publicly associated with any aircraft: "The PIA program enables interested aircraft owners to request an alternate, temporary ICAO aircraft address, which will not be assigned to the owner in the Civil Aviation Registry," the FAA writes.
The FAA says that this program was developed explicitly due to concerns from aircraft owners and the National Business Aviation Association, an industry group that represents the interests of businesses that have private jets: "FAA has initiated the Privacy ICAO aircraft address program with the objective of improving the privacy of aircraft operators in today's ADS-B environment by limiting the extent to which the aircraft can be quickly and easily identified by non-U.S. government entities, while ensuring there is no adverse effect on ATC services."