The standard the exchange relies on, Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), is becoming increasingly ubiquitous and is mandated by the FAA. It’s that standard that has made ADS-B Exchange so reviled by Musk and the Sauds. Plane owners who wish to hide their flight paths from the general public can submit a request to the FAA, which can require that downstream users of their feeds, like FlightRadar24 and FlightAware, suppress that information. Because ADS-B is transmitted without encryption, directly from the planes themselves, that kind of censorship isn’t possible.
ADS-B Exchange’s administrators pride themselves on never hiding flight data. James Stanford, one of ADS-B Exchange’s senior administrators, told WIRED their website has been used to track gold smugglers and kidnappers, and it has been threatened by billionaires and warlords who aren’t keen on having their private jets tracked.
“We had a big fistfight with China recently, they went and banned a bunch of receivers,” Stanford says. Beijing went so far as to accuse ADS-B Exchange of espionage over its role in tracking Chinese jets in Taiwanese airspace. “There’s countries we can’t go to anymore,” Stanford says of himself and a core team of administrators.
In recent years, the Saudi government has tried to push international aviation regulators to forbid or prevent the public dissemination of ADS-B data, though that proposal hasn’t gone far. Musk, on the other hand, has threatened legal action against those sharing the location of his private jet.
Stanford says their position has always been to oppose any censorship, regardless of the reason. “How do you make that decision, that one person is good and one person is bad?” he says.
Being independent and decentralized has come with significant advantages. Stanford says they have been contacted by law enforcement and the US military to provide surveillance where there have been gaps in the government-owned systems. “In Arizona, there’s been accidents where we’ve had better data than the FAA,” he says.
As hosting and server costs mounted into the tens of thousands of dollars, ADS-B Exchange moved to commercialize to cover its costs. While it is free to use, the website sells ads and offers paid access to its full suite of data for flight enthusiasts and commercial clients.
“It was getting so big and expensive we had to commercialize it somehow,” Stanford says. Even then, he adds, ADS-B Exchange is a fraction of the price of its competitors.
Revenue has increased significantly in recent years, Stanford says. “Our plan was to run it until we can quit our full-time jobs, and run it into retirement.” But as revenue has shot up, ADS-B Exchange has had a core organizational problem. “It’s owned by one person,” he says.
Last month, as the site was getting headlines for being banned from Twitter, rumors swirled that Dan Streufert, the site’s founder and sole owner, was planning to sell the website to Jetnet. It led to anxiety among the administrators who were being left out of the discussions.
“My fear has always been that someone comes in and destroys everything we’ve built,” Stanford says.
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