Tracking Dictators Around the World with ADS-B Data

dictator alert

Over on Reddit freelance investigative journalist Emmanuel Freudenhal has put up a very interesting post about how he is using ADS-B tracking to keep an eye on the travel habits of dictators around the world. If you were unaware, ADS-B is a signal transmitted by aircraft which contains aircraft ID info, and data such as speed, altitude and GPS location. Websites like ADS-B Exchange aggregate ADS-B data from volunteer ground stations that are running (mostly) RTL-SDR dongles. Emmanuel notes that by watching the movements of aircraft registered to dictators, it is possible to keep an eye on their travel habits.

One story that Emmanuel has written using this data is a piece on Paul Biya, Cameroon’s president. His article discusses how Paul Biya is often seen in Geneva Switzerland, away on private visits. In a comment, Emmanuel notes that since his story ran, Paul Biya has almost stopped travelling to Switzerland.

Emmanuel has also been running a Twitter bot that uses ADS-B data to automatically tweet when a dictator aircraft is detected at Geneva airport. A list of known dictator aircraft is kept on a publicly accessible Excel file.

Now he is hoping to expand his tracking operation, and is asking for more people to feed the ADS-B Exchange aggregation website. ADS-B Exchange is the site recommend to feed because it is the only ADS-B aggregation website that does not censor any aircraft. Other aggregation sites such as Flightradar24 and FlightAware have come under scrutiny in the past for their willingness to upon request censor and block the tracking of military/political aircraft and private jets owned by several companies. In particular several aircraft owned by dictators are reportedly censored. However, the counter argument is that not censoring aircraft may result in ADS-B tracking eventually being made illegal, or that costly legal suites may be brought against ADS-B aggregation companies.

On the Reddit post Emmanuel writes:

I’m a freelance investigative journalist (www.emmanuel-freudenthal.com / @emmanuelfreuden). I’m getting into SDR/ADSB and very glad I found this group because I need your help to track aircrafts!

With a colleague, we started a project to look into the travels of dictators around the world. It’s an evolution of a Twitter bot (https://twitter.com/GVA_Watcher) started a few years ago. This bot tweets every time an aircraft owned by a dictatorship lands or takes off at the Geneva airport, Switzerland. And dictators visit Geneva, a lot. There’s secretive banks and good healthcare, enjoyed by Algeria’s departing president or Cameroon’s president Paul Biya.

We want to expand this project to all of the world’s airports. See our place-holding website: https://dictatoralert.org(which will get expanded soonish). To do so, we’ve partnered with ADSB-Exchange, which as you probably know, is the only website that doesn’t censor flights. Usually the planes owned/chartered by dictatorships don’t show up on flightaware or flightradar24 (anyone can asked to be removed). Some planes also don’t share their GPS coordinates (e.g. Mode S) and so they don’t show up.

In addition to the Dictator Alerts, we’ll also use the data to do investigations into dictatorships, human rights violation and corruption.

The idea is to allow everyone to keep tabs, so the data will be available publicly, via Twitter bots and on a dedicated website (with e.g. a page per dictatorship and per airport).

To succeed, we need a lot more antennas! So, it’d be great if you could feed ADSB-Exchange. You can do that in addition to feeding other services. See how to do it here: https://www.adsbexchange.com/how-to-feed/ If you want to feed, please contact me on emmanuel.freudenthal@gmail.com, my twitter DM are open. It’s quite important that you contact me before feeding, so that we also capture aircrafts that don’t share their GPS coordinates.

That also means, you’ll be able to see ALL of the data that you’re collecting online.

What do you think? Would you be keen to participate? Any questions?

Your feedback is very welcome, i’m still learning!

Best,

Emmanuel

Dictator Alert. A Twitter bot reporting on dictator movements via ADS-B data. dictatoralert.org

Other stories of interest: A similar story we ran last year was about tracking police and military aircraft at the G7 summit with an RTL-SDR, and three years ago we ran a story about tracking World Economic Forum Attendees with an RTL-SDR.