The FAA Wants to Broadcast Your Position

Mac’s most recent flight from Clermont County, Ohio, back to the home base in Michigan. Mac was on hand last weekend for the 50th anniversary of Sporty’s Pilot Shops and their International Learn to Fly Day celebrations. Courtesy: Flightaware.com

Any pilot who flies IFR understands that the FAA is keeping track of every moment of your flight and knows exactly where you are, and where you are going. But does that need to know for air traffic control give the government the right to tell anyone in the entire world over the Internet when and where you are flying, or to present on the Internet a historical record of your trips? I don’t think so. And neither does EAA or other leading aviation groups.

The whole issue of flight tracking and reporting started in the late 1990s when the FAA created a single nationwide computerized system of tracking all aircraft flying in the IFR system. Before development of the Enhanced Traffic Flow Management System, information on IFR flights was spread out over the 20 FAA air traffic control centers. The computers in each center knew about your flight and where you were going, but the information was not organized on a nationwide scale.

The new enhanced system was very important to managing air traffic flow and cutting delays because controllers could see where weather and dense traffic was creating congestion. With this information the national traffic managers could reroute airplanes around the problem areas.

But, the new traffic flow system made exact details of every IFR flight available for the first time, and many people wanted to get their hands on that information. The Internet was growing rapidly and there is value in accurate data about all kinds of activities, including where and when you are flying your airplane.

The FAA agreed to supply the IFR traffic data to people who would post it on the Internet or in other ways use the information in for-profit ventures. That’s not a big deal for an airline because its schedule is published for all to see. But knowing movements of an airplane can tell one company what its competitor may be up to. Or it could cause security concerns for some.

Most importantly it is just plain un-American for the government to collect information about citizens and then broadcast that personal information for anyone in the whole world to see. The government has a need to know certain personal information about us and that includes the specific information detailing IFR flights in our airplanes. But the Constitution protects us from the government distributing private information to those with no requirement to know.

Privacy concerns are becoming an ever-growing issue as more information is collected about our activities. For example, if you use EZPass or one of the other automatic toll paying devices for your car a computerized record of your movements is being made. Or if you use electronic toll cards on many public transportation systems, a record of your coming and going is collected. But the government forbids publishing that information, as it should.

To address the privacy concerns of those who fly IFR, in 2000 the FAA created the blocked aircraft registration request (BARR) that allowed any airplane owner to prevent the FAA from distributing information on the flights of that N-numbered airplane. The National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) manages the BARR and it’s free. All companies that post information on IFR flying activity agree to honor the BARR and not show the flights of those airplane owners who have asked to have their N numbers blocked.

The BARR system has worked great. The FAA and the security arms of the government such as TSA get information on all IFR flights, but the for-profit websites cannot show the movements of airplane owners who want privacy. There is also a companion system that allows you to unblock your N number to make your flight information available only to those who you grant access. There is a charge to unblock an N number and allow password-protected flight tracking so that a company can follow the progress of the flight of its own airplane, or family members can know where other family members are during a flight.

But for some strange reason the FAA has published a proposed rule that would essentially eliminate the BARR. If the new rule is adopted – and there is fierce resistance from EAA, NBAA, AOPA, and many business groups – all IFR flights would be broadcast except for those that could demonstrate an impossibly high security risk. I can’t imagine how this rule change eliminating BARR would help anyone, except the for-profit sites that want to sell your private flying information. I just don’t get it. Why is the FAA messing with a system that has worked so well?

Of course, a truly determined spy could find out where and when you are flying because we broadcast that information over open VHF radio frequencies when we call for an IFR clearance, or communicate with controllers en route. But that’s like saying somebody could know where you are going on a car trip by following you all the way. It’s possible, but is nothing like the government taking your private information and broadcasting it to the entire world without your permission.

The EAA has joined with other aviation groups in petitioning Congress to make preservation of the BARR a component of any new FAA funding authorization. After all, it was Congress making a new law that forced the FAA to create the BARR program back in 2000 in the first place. Let’s hope Congress sees the wisdom of its original actions, and EAA and the other groups will keep up the pressure.

As for me, I don’t block my N number because, well, I write about where I fly in Sport Aviation so it’s not really a secret. If you care, you can check up on N45FM and see where I have flown. But that’s my choice, not the government’s. And making your own choice is what freedom is all about.

UPDATE–On Friday, May 27, the Department of Transportation announced that it is going ahead with its plans to end the BARR program. The only hope now to continue the BARR program that protects the privacy of those flying in the system is for Congress to include langauge in the FAA reauthorization act that requires it.
Mac Mc

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41 Responses to The FAA Wants to Broadcast Your Position

  1. Pete Zaitcev says:

    VFR flights are tracked too. I looked up my own flights on FlightAware a few times.

    • Mac says:

      You’re right, Pete. Some VFR flights can be posted on various websites if you are in the system for flight following. However, even with flight following, not all VFR flights will be posted.

      Mac Mc

  2. R.J. Reilly says:

    Get used to it. This entire country is coming to be about knowledge of and control of everyone and everything.

  3. Lindy Kirkland says:

    Well said, Mac. It should be up to the individual if it wants the information published or not. There are other examples of this ability to choose such as the national Do-Not-Call Registry. In my mind, the Chamber of Commerce and other purely business organizations should be screaming too.

  4. Fred von Zabern says:

    Just another example of the current govt pendulum swing toward a decrease in personal liberty. Presumably this tracking was determined to be necessary to minimize private airplanes involved in terrorist activities. For the miniscule amount of valuable information gathered from this tracking, significant resources are being spent for no useful information. Further, was there any citizen’s steering group or other privacy advocates involved in formulating this policy? I doubt it. The same crowd is driving aviation to China and India, and could care less about what we think, or how our tax dollars should be spent.

  5. Mac says:

    Actually, the terrorist question does not apply because the FAA, TSA and any other agency involved in security can see the N number of all airplanes in the system. The blocking of an N number only prevents the information from being posted on for-profit websites.

    Mac Mc

  6. Thomas Boyle says:

    I’m pretty sure the FAA sold my contact information to a junk mailer many years ago. They had misspelled my name on a pilot certificate (in an unusual way) and I returned it to have the error corrected. Not too long after that, I started getting junk mail – with the same misspelled name.

    The way to fight this is not BARR. It is to ask friends of privacy in Congress to pass a more sweeping law prohibiting the public dissemination of information that could reasonably identify the movements of individuals, including flight tracks, car transponders, cellphone locations, or any other tracking information gathered by the government. This would supersede any FAA regulation.

    • Mac says:

      Hi Thomas,

      Anyone can look you up on the FAA’s website where everyone who holds any type of FAA certificate is listed. You can have your address blocked on the site. However, I don’t believe you can block the address of your airplane registration which the FAA lists in another area of its faa.gov website.

      Mac Mc

  7. Larry Baker says:

    Initially I was absolutely pro blocking. Then I thought about the fact that we are flying over other people’s property and homes. Do they have a right to know who is overflying them? I think they do.

    • Mac says:

      Hi Larry,

      Interesting observation. But why only report on airplanes flying in the system. A pilot flying VFR without any contact with ATC will not be recorded or reported, and those are the airplanes likely to be flying closest to the property of the owners you are concerned about. Sounds like a slippery slope to me.

      Mac Mc

    • doug brownlee says:

      do you REALLY think 99.9% care????????

    • Craig says:

      Yeah, and what about all the cars and trucks driving by my house? Who knows what’s in them! And they’re a lot closer than some jet five miles overhead. The people have a right to know!

  8. Robert Allen says:

    The question is not about whether or not the government has the right to keep our flight information (they need it, they’ve got it, so deal with it), the question is whether or not the government has the right to share that information with a company which is intending to broadcast it all over the world. Think about some of the other information the government already has on us: our income, our medical records, which cell phone tower we are nearest to. Would there be anyway to justify sharing that information with the rest of the world? I don’t think anybody would agree to that, but if we don’t stop the feds from sharing information about our flying habits, we shouldn’t be surprised when they share everything they know about us.

    BARR is absolutely essential. Otherwise our idiot politicians will give our personal information to any company who pays a lobbyist to bribe them.

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Mac.

  9. Roger says:

    Flying commercial is not really economical for many business travelers. I was looking at a consulting job that would have at times had me traveling to two or 3 locations in a single day. Just the delays at check in and baggage pick up would have made that impossible going commercial, not to count layovers. With a small charter, or possibly fractional ownership I could have covered 3 sites east of the Mississippi in one day. Admittedly time would have been limited, but it would have been economically viable and far more profitable than trying to go commercial. In my case, like Mac’s it would not have mattered if any one knew where I was or not. Actually it probably would have been to my advantage. *However* knowing where the opposition is going and when, or who is visiting them could give a competitor a distinct advantage. I dislike saying this, but there are those in the present administration who are distinctly anti business and anti capitalism. I see this as just a piece of a much larger picture. I think the major organizations are doing us a favor by fighting this direction the FAA wants to take. Whether they listen or not is another matter.

  10. Duane Beland says:

    I believe that our right to privacy is protected by the Constitution. We do not need to apologize or make excuses for this right. The government is entitled to only those powers that we allow it. The FAA must show compelling need to publish our IFR flight before we should allow it to do so.

    I am against giving it this power.

  11. Aaron Johnson says:

    Mac,

    In response to your comment, “Of course, a truly determined spy could find out where and when you are flying because we broadcast that information over open VHF radio frequencies…” Websites like http://www.liveatc.net now make tracking via VHF radio less than difficult. This website utilizes volunteers near airports to broadcast ATC communications in real time via the internet. Volunteers receive the broadcast VHF with a standard receiver, and stream it on http://www.liveatc.net using some pretty simple equipment. Tracking movements of a corporate competitor or any other N number of interest need not be saved for the dedicated spy. Anyone with an internet connection, headphones, and a bit of aviation knowledge can find out where and when you fly.

    I disagree with the government “taking your private information and broadcasting it to the entire world without your permission.” What are your thoughts about the general public doing so?

    Thank you

  12. "John Doe" says:

    Mac—

    Equally frustrating to me, for years, has been the fact that the FAA makes public our addresses associated with the N numbers of our airplanes. Why do we accept that as normal? Can I Google someone’s car license plate and get their home address? Of course not! But you can with my airplane, and along with it on one vendor’s website comes a map to my home.

    You can imagine the risks. If you fly over someone who thinks you’re too low (if they’re correct or not), they can come right to your door. If God forbid, you have an accident you’ll have the local newspaper calling prior to your spouse finding out (I have two acquaintances who experienced it). There is simply no need for it other than so that the FAA can make the data available to for-profit businesses.

    We need to bring the FAA into the last half of the 20th century in terms of privacy.

  13. Gordon Arnaut says:

    As a user of the national air space system, there is no privacy principle involved.

    The public owns the air space system. And the public is therefore entitled to that information.

    If you don’t want your flight tracking information made public then don’t fly in the system. Simple as that.

    Making this information available to the public is the right thing to do.

  14. John Doe says:

    Then why don’t we have access to name and address information for every automobile that drives in a national park or on an interstate freeway? That has been tried and blocked.

    They are doing this purely and simply because we’re talking about airplanes.

  15. Gordon Arnaut says:

    Not correct, John Doe.

    You can access the name and address of every vehicle owner if you know the license plate.

    The public needs this info, as Bruce Ziegler pointed out because a lot of bizjet flights are by publicly owned companies. It is a fact that there is a lot of unnecessary pleasure flying going on and shareholders have a right to know how the aircraft are being used.

    As Paul Bertorelli pointed out on the Avweb blog, a simple 24-hour delay in publishing aircraft movements would alleviate any security concerns.

    • John Doe says:

      Actually Gordon, it is correct. There’s a federal statute that governs privacy issues with auto licensing.

      The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994 is a United States federal statute governing the privacy and disclosure of personal information gathered by state Departments of Motor Vehicles. The law was passed in 1994 after the murder of actress Rebecca Schaeffer. It is currently codified at Chapter 123 of Title 18 of the United States Code.

      So if you go on to read the statute, there a circumstances under which you can get ownership info from a car license plate but it’s restricted to very specific circumstances. You cannot simply google a license plate number and get someone’s address from a government website. And it isn’t so easy from any private ones.

      I understand the topic is tracking the movement of corporate aircraft but they also own busses, trucks, cars, and ships, and we can’t track those either. Nor can we get the CEO’s address from a government website toed to the vehicle. Those vehicles travel on public roads, national waters, etc. Why exactly is it OK for anybody to know where I live simply because I own an airplane?

  16. Robert Allen says:

    Gordon, as airplane owners our names and addresses have already been available to the public for years. I honestly don’t know if you can look up a driver’s address by using just a license plate on a free website or not. I’ve never tried and I’m not nosy enough to bother with it.

    The address of a car or plane’s owner is not what is being discussed here. They are talking about publishing wherever that plane has ever been flown. Would you be so excited about “the public’s right to know” if it meant that I could see where ever you drive your car? Almost every street is in some way funded by tax dollars just as the national airspace system, so by your argument do I have a right to know where you drive, or would that be an invasion of your privacy?

  17. Gordon Steffek says:

    It’s one more step toward total control.Once they have it you will never get rid of it.
    Vote them out of office.Do it soon.Their gain is our loss forever.

  18. Gordon Arnaut says:

    Robert, the analogy with cars only works to a certain point.

    There is not a requirement, legal or practical, to track the movement of cars, like there is to track aircraft in the ATC system. If you fly VFR and don’t use flight following, no one will know where you go. You don’t even need to turn on your transponder if you stay out of Class B and C.

    So there is a lot of freedom there and you can safeguard your privacy if that is important to you by flying in this way.

    But when you choose to fly in the ATC system, then that is a different story. Here there is a very strong practical reason for your aircraft to be tracked at all times, in order to avoid collisions.

    So it is not a privacy matter. It is a matter of practicality and safety. It is also a matter of public interest, especially for shareholders and other stakeholders of publicly owned companies.

    Why should you worry if someone can see where your N-number has been? There is no conceivable reason. that information is useless and anonymous because it isonly the N-number that is revealed not your name. I do not like the idea of my personal information being either collected or broadcast, but this is not personal info that is being disclosed, just the airplane N-number.

  19. Robert Allen says:

    Gordon,
    I’m going to try to explain this to you one more time.

    I’m not objecting to the location of my aircraft being tracked when I’m flying IFR, using flight following or just have my transponder turned on. As you said, ATC has to know where every pilot in the system is to avoid collisions. That’s a safety issue and no responsible pilot is going to object to that.

    The problem is that the FAA wants to release that information to the public just to satisfy “public interest”. Why you or any other member of the general public cares where I go I can’t imagine. I’m not a celebrity or the CEO of a corporation or anybody else you should care about. If shareholders of a corporation want more transparency about the use of corporate assets, they can direct company policy in that direction. So that argument is thin at best.

    Today as an experiment I Googled the N number of a friend’s plane. The very first site listed was Flight Aware. They told me he wasn’t flying today. There were also four pages of websites that mentioned his plane, his name, his address, phone number and forums and type clubs related to his plane. All that info came up just from the N number. I didn’t give his name. I didn’t even specify that it was an N number. All of those sites came up from the N number alone.

    Now I don’t do anything illegal, immoral or even very exciting when I fly, so I have to wonder why you feel that you need to know where I’m going. Why do you feel the need to know when a pilot is out of town? You wouldn’t know that if he flew on an airliner. Is it so that you will know when a home is unoccupied so you can burgle it, maybe rape his wife while she’s home alone?

    Apparently you don’t fly or you would know that transponders are not only required in class B or C airspace. If your aircraft is equiped with an engine driven electrical system, a transponder is required to be on anywhere (from ground level on up) within a 30 mile radius of the class B airport. So the locations of most of us are already being tracked even if we’re not using “the system”. I’m just saying that it is a real bad idea to publish that information and I would think that any reasonable person would agree.

    If you can think of any other flimsy excuse for sticking your nose into the personal business of pilots, go ahead and sound off, I’ll shoot down those arguements too.

  20. Gordon Arnaut says:

    Robert, you have a very insulting and condescending manner.

    What do you think would be my, or anyone’s, reaction if you made such a comment in person: “do you want to burgle my home, or rape my wife?”

    My professional flying career includes many hours in flight test as PIC. I do not need to be lectured on transponder use by a private pilot.

    And next time you stoop to lecture on a friendly discussion board, at least get your facts right. Transponder use is not mandatory within 30 nm of EVERY class B field, just those in Appendix D of section 91.

    And it is not from ground level on up, but to a ceiling of 10,000 ft.

    Please do not respond to this post. My exchange with you is over.

  21. stuart says:

    I,am a nam, Cav, scout, pilot. the spooks new where we were most of the time. now the real question is does the FFA get paid for this info or is it free ? and if it is going to be released, sell it to reduce proposed user fees. some pay per click.

  22. Art Z. says:

    BARR should work equally for all aircraft. As currently implemented, a few people get more access to privacy than most people. This is my cause for concern. As a private citizen, I can decide whether to allow many of my movements to be tracked, or not. I can choose to use cash instead of credit cards, for instance. BARR, however, is only available to the wealthy (celebrities, corporations, etc.).

    Consider this: Since we have access to a database with time and location data on N-numbers, should we also have access to a database with time and location data on the toll-road RFID tags in cars (iPass, iZoom, etc.)?

    • Mac says:

      Hi Art,

      Actually the BARR was free. It cost nothing to request to have your N number blocked so a pilot or aircraft owner of any means could opt to use BARR. However, the key word is WAS free. The DOT and FAA as of last Friday have moved ahead with eliminating the BARR option for all aircraft owners except for those who can demonstrate a direct threat to their safety and security.

      Mac Mc

  23. Robert Allen says:

    Gordon,
    I know you asked that I not reply, but I’d like to apologize for the tone of my last post. I certainly didn’t mean that you personally would use any information for any improper purposes, but there are some crackpots out there and they are the ones I was talking about.

    I’m sure neither of us will come around to seeing the other’s side, and we don’t have to. We’re both pilots and are lucky enough to belong to a special club, so there’s no reason for incivility when we disagree.

    I will agree with you about one thing; we’ve talked this thing to death. Anyway, I’m sorry for being a jerk.

    Blue skies,
    Robert

  24. Alex Kovnat says:

    I don’t believe the FAA should make public the itinerary of business aircraft, or that of aircraft owned and operated by prominent VIP’s, celebrities, or otherwise-wealthy individuals such as successful lawyers and doctors. Here is why: Kidnappers are enough of a danger to wealthy individuals and their families as it is. Why make it easier for those criminals?

  25. Gordon Arnaut says:

    Robert, I accept your very sincere apology.

    No harm done.

    Regards,

    Gordon.

  26. Thomas Boyle says:

    Apparently the Rebecca Schaeffer Act needs updating to include information about motor vehicles (including boats and aircraft) gathered by the Federal government.

  27. yogi says:

    Mac,

    what a lively discussion! both sides have interesting arguments, and intelligent comments. my question is this, if BARR does go dark, do you think this will be a boon for fractionals? could we expect to see companies selling aircraft to off balance sheet entities and leasing/chartering so that travel becomes anonymous again? i can guarantee if I have thought of it, so have MANY others. my thought is at the end of the day, the only folks in the database will be those that don’t care or fly their own plane and can’t avoid it.

  28. Mac says:

    Hi Yogi,

    Yes, the fractionals are already licking their chops over the end of BARR. Even if a snoop knows that a company or individual owns a fraction, there is no way to know when that person is in the air, or in which airplane they may be flying. Fractionals also permit a company to say more or less truthfully that it does not own a jet, which in these days is equally important.

    Bests,

    Mac Mc

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