New flight tracking privacy measures commended by US business aviation

An influential US business aviation group is applauding the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for developing a plan to allow a real-time flight-tracking opt-out for operators that have equipped their aircraft with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) equipment, which will be required to operate in most US airspace from January 1, 2020.

Business aircraft operators are concerned because ADS-B Out transponders – which are used to broadcast aircraft identification, position, altitude and velocity to other aircraft, as well as to air traffic control (ATC) – link to aircraft registries. Anyone using inexpensive, commercially available radios can capture these wireless ATC communications, and flight-tracking websites use this data to publicly disseminate information on aircraft movements. Operators worry that bad actors could use this information to track government and business leaders and commit acts of corporate espionage, extortion or terrorism.

In a related move to ensure operator security and privacy, the FAA said it will establish new terms-of-service agreements with aircraft tracking service providers that will limit the sharing of aircraft data, if operators want to opt out from having their flight information broadcast over the Internet. The new terms of service are expected to go into effect by year’s end.

These new privacy and security developments were announced by the FAA during the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) Flight Planners Summit in Las Vegas.

Under Phase 1 of the so-called “Privacy ICAO Address (PIA) Program,” which is expected to be in place by January 1, 2020, the FAA will set up a web portal to accept requests from operators that wish to block real-time ADS-B position and identification information for their aircraft. These operators will be issued an alternative, temporary International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aircraft address, which will not be connected to their aircraft information in the FAA Aircraft Registry.

In Phase 2, which is expected to start in mid-2020, the PIA programme will be transitioned to third-party service providers. Only external organisations vetted by the FAA (e.g. law enforcement) will be able to reverse-look-up the true identity of an aircraft. Full details about the PIA programme are available at www.faa.gov/go/adsbprivacy.

NBAA president and chief executive Ed Bolen said: “We’re pleased the FAA has responded positively to ADS-B privacy concerns of operators, which NBAA has raised in numerous government/industry forums, including with the NextGen Advisory Committee. Until now, the lack of a privacy solution has been a disincentive for some operators to equip with ADS-B. No one should have to surrender their privacy and security just because they board an airplane.”

Heidi Williams, NBAA’s director of air traffic services and infrastructure, said: “Retaining privacy after equipping with ADS-B Out ensures that the aircraft isn’t transmitting information that can be tracked back to the registry. This will encourage those operators that have not already equipped their aircraft with ADS-B to do so, which will help expedite aircraft handling as part of the FAA’s Next-Generation (NextGen) air traffic management system.”

Regarding the new terms-of-service agreements with aircraft tracking service providers, Bolen thanked the FAA for effectively partnering to produce an outcome that strikes an appropriate balance between preserving privacy and security, and making aircraft data available. “This solution reconfirms NBAA’s long-standing commitment to protecting privacy and mitigating security threats, including corporate espionage, for business aircraft operators.”

Previously, operators wishing to block the display of their aircraft data could submit a Block Aircraft Registry Request (BARR). That programme has been renamed the Limiting Aircraft Data Displayed (LADD) programme, and aircraft tracking vendors must now:

  • demonstrate their ability to block display of aircraft data from their public display systems.
  • block from public display aircraft registration numbers, call signs or flight numbers included on the FAA-provided LADD (block) list.
  • not display historical data for any aircraft registration or call sign while the aircraft is included in the LADD list.

If the FAA determines that a vendor has willfully violated these terms of service, the agency may suspend or stop providing data to the vendor. Operators that do not wish to have their aircraft data shared can submit LADD requests via:

Operators can request either “FAA source blocking,” in which aircraft data is limited to FAA use only, or “subscriber blocking,” in which flight data is only made available to select vendors.

“We’ve been eager to see the FAA update its terms of agreement to define what ‘historical data’ means,” said Williams. “The new terms of service also improve the ability of operators to manage their aircraft data. By establishing a dedicated LADD web page, operators can submit a blocking request and decide whether to block all vendors or specify an allowed vendor.”

The LADD programme was developed in response to FAA reauthorization legislation language that calls upon the agency to update its data policies to ensure operators’ right to privacy when using the ATC system.

Flight tracking data became available in 1991, when the FAA established the Aircraft Situational Display to Industry (ASDI) programme for the airlines. In 1997, NBAA, the FAA and ASDI vendors began developing the BARR system to help protect the privacy of general aviation operators.

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