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  1. Life & Culture

Florida college student tracking Elon Musk’s jet doesn’t plan to stop

Jack Sweeney took the data that was there, and did something novel with it.
Illustration by Sean Kristoff-Jones
Illustration by Sean Kristoff-Jones [ Sean Kristoff-Jones ]
Published Jul. 6|Updated Jul. 13

CLERMONT — Here, where the Florida Citrus Tower offers panoramic views of big-box retailers and backyard pool cages built atop the former orange groves, the 19-year-old college student vexing the world’s richest man chose to meet at a Panera Bread. He dug into a bowl of macaroni and cheese.

His suburban hometown’s best quality, he said with no irony ― skipping right over the nearby wax museum featuring every U.S. president — is the short drive to Orlando. But for a guy with Jack Sweeney’s interests, there is another advantage to Florida’s flyover country: proximity to one of the world’s busiest airports.

Sweeney’s father, a technician for American Airlines, introduced Jack to the magic of flight tracking when he was a boy. When the elder Sweeney commuted from Dallas, Jack’s mother, a teacher, remembers her son checking the computer to let her know, “Dad’s almost home.”

Jack Sweeney displays @elonjet on his phone on June 23, 2022 in Clermont, Fla.
Jack Sweeney displays @elonjet on his phone on June 23, 2022 in Clermont, Fla. [ CHRISTOPHER SPATA | Tampa Bay Times ]

Always technically inclined, Sweeney was a freshman when he bypassed his high school’s network security to install games, confusing the IT staff and earning a trip to the office. He built a server in the closet of his childhood bedroom to control the family’s appliances.

Later in high school he learned to code. For fun, he bought a cheap, credit-card-sized computer called a Raspberry Pi and paired it with a small antenna on the roof of his parents’ home, tracking the paths of every plane within 100 miles.

Then 2020. Senior year suspended in pandemic lockdown, there was time to kill. Sitting beneath the photo of a Tesla sedan floating in orbit tacked to his bedroom wall, he programmed a Twitter account to automatically post the movements of a certain private jet, a Gulfstream G650ER.

More than a year later, in late November 2021, he was studying in his dorm at the University of Central Florida after midnight when he got a direct message.

“Can you take this down? It is a security risk.”

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, worth $220 billion at Forbes’ last count, had discovered @elonjet.

Sweeney was freaking out a bit himself, showing friends his phone, telling his parents, all of them strategizing.

Nineteen hours later: “Yes I can but it’ll cost you a Model 3,” Sweeney wrote back, “only joking, unless?”

The undergrad corresponded with the billionaire for a few nervous days. It’s hard to pay attention in “Introduction to Engineering” when you’ve got a negotiation with a personal hero happening in your pocket.

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Sweeney told Musk he meant no harm. Musk offered $5,000. Sweeney countered with $50,000. Then on Jan. 3 Musk said, “Doesn’t feel right to pay to shut this down” and blocked him.

“Billionaires, I guess, think they can have whatever they want,” Sweeney said. But a college kid in Florida who still borrows the family car has something at least a couple billionaires can’t.

Sweeney mostly got a kick out of the way Musk didn’t understand how he was able to track him. (Musk called air-traffic control “so primitive.”)

So how did he do it?

When Sweeney placed that antenna on his parents’ roof years earlier, he joined a community of thousands of backyard hobbyists doing the same thing. When they pool their data on the website ADS-B Exchange, it forms a global flight-tracking network so robust, its founder says, that occasionally aviation officials or the Department of Defense come calling to fill in gaps in their own data.

The key, though, is that unlike competitors such as FlightAware, the crowdsourced ADS-B Exchange receives no data from the Federal Aviation Administration, and so is not beholden to FAA rules allowing aircraft owners to opt out of being tracked publicly.

A screenshot of the ADS-B Exchange website displaying planes tracked by Jack Sweeney's receiver on the roof of his parents' home in Clermont, Fla.
A screenshot of the ADS-B Exchange website displaying planes tracked by Jack Sweeney's receiver on the roof of his parents' home in Clermont, Fla. [ Courtesy of Jack Sweeney ]

That has allowed the network to pinpoint a Libyan warlord smuggling U.S.-embargoed Venezuelan gold into West Africa, its founder said. It also allowed Sweeney to do his thing.

“We’re not aimed at being a paparazzi site,” said Dan Streufert, the ADS-B Exchange founder. “But we don’t filter any data, we just pull it off the airwaves. I hope people are responsible with it, but I don’t take a position on what (users) do with it.”

After Sweeney posted about his exchange with Musk, launching national headlines, he gave interviews to CNN and Bloomberg TV from the common area of his dorm. His friends stood off camera, marveling.

After that, even at the bowling alley with good deals near campus, the subject would inevitably come up.

“He’s really humble,” said Hudson Taylor, 20, a close friend. “But I definitely told people he was that guy tracking Elon’s jet. People are like ‘Wow, that’s you!’”

Seeing a business opportunity, Sweeney created a website with ads as a hub for his jet tracking. He added jets: Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Kim Kardashian, Drake. Notable private jets that have landed at Tampa International Airport in the past year, he said, include those owned by entrepreneur Grant Cardone, ballplayer Alex Rodriguez and singers Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift.

Before long, another billionaire was in his DMs.

“How much?” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote. “You tell me what you want so I can end this risk to my family’s safety.”

Twitter messages between Mark Cuban and Jack Sweeney.
Twitter messages between Mark Cuban and Jack Sweeney. [ Courtesy of Jack Sweeney ]

Sweeney asked for the Tesla that Musk didn’t give him. Oh, and to attend a Mavs game. Cuban offered instead to be a “friend for life” and his Gmail address, which Sweeney pointed out was fairly easy to come by. “You get business advice from me,” Cuban wrote. And the NBA game? “Sure. Next season.”

Sweeney complied, sort of. He took down the public Twitter account but still shares Cuban’s jet locations with a smaller audience on the social app Discord.

“Now I kind of feel like he gaslit me and was just, like, saying things to get me to take it down,” Sweeney said. He’s not so sure he’ll get those NBA tickets.

Cuban declined to comment via email. Musk did not respond to messages on Twitter or emails to SpaceX.

Musk, Sweeney said, has since tried to mask his jet’s identity, opting into a federal privacy program to vary the ID his transponder beams out, so only the FAA will know who he is. No big deal, Sweeney said.

“It took some work, but there are ways to find him,” Sweeney said. “He’s the only one who uses the same three airports.”

Sweeney’s methods are available to any civilian. He just had the creativity to take tracking mainstream.

It’s all part of the fast-growing world of open-source intelligence, or OSINT, which refers to the troves of data publicly available online, such as YouTube videos, digital maps and satellite imagery. A few years ago it was the domain of intelligence agencies. Now it can be browsed by anyone.

It’s what allowed a volunteer army of self-styled “Sedition Hunters” to scour images and audio from Jan. 6 to identify Capitol rioters before the FBI could.

Some may question the public value of @elonjet, but there is certainly a dollar value for Musk’s attention. The CEO of a smart air-conditioning company offered Sweeney $25,000 for the account, plus a $50,000 investment in a future business venture.

“Would like to use this opportunity to get some publicity …,” the CEO wrote. “As I’m sure you know, Elon has talked about getting into the HVAC space and our platform is actually perfect … .”

Sweeney wanted to see where else this might all lead, so he let the offer pass by.

Sweeney has made a few thousand dollars from ads, enabling him to upgrade his computer. He more seems to relish direct contact with powerful people he admires and the small power he wields.

Last month, the National Business Aviation Association fretted over “headline driving-privacy challenges” and said they’re working with government officials on fixes. The association did not respond to inquiries, but in a blog post lamented “determined members of the public.”

Sweeney is sure they’re talking about him.

He’s clear: “I’m definitely not going to just take it down.”

And he had Musk in another tough position. If the billionaire followed through on buying Twitter he’d have the power to ban @elonjet, but doing so would trash his credibility as a self-styled champion of free speech on the platform.

Sweeney’s parents said they support their son. Like any parents, they’d most like to see this lead to a job.

He’s a rising sophomore now, studying information technology, spending his summer hanging out with friends and playing Minecraft. He’s doing some work for Uberjets, a private flight startup.

At Panera, asking Sweeney about the profundity of his situation drew mostly a shrug or a stare or a glance at the Snapchat messages pinging his phone. Same for asking what he hopes to build this into. (“A better website or something, maybe?”) He really gets talking only only when it’s about technology on planes, spewing acronyms and jargon. Setting an interview took months. He’d often respond to inquiries days later by text and after midnight.

“You have to remember, he’s 19. He has no problem talking to other 19-year-olds,” his mother, Amy Sweeney, said. “Nineteen. He’s not media-savvy or organized like an adult.” It’s easy to forget.

How about what he wants for his future? A high-paying tech job in the aviation industry, perhaps?

Yes, he said, that would be cool. He stared off again, then grabbed a thought. “I really want to see him in person, get a photo of him getting off the plane,” he said, meaning Musk. Sweeney will know if the billionaire flies into town, after all. “Maybe if I held a sign by the side of the road or something, he’d stop.”

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