Friday, June 03, 2011

Cover Your Tail

A few years ago, my student was refueling the Cessna we had just flown as I turned to appreciate an old 737 converted to a business jet that was parked in the hot spot behind us. Intrigued by the classic lines and the "cigar tube" engines, I pulled out my camera to take a few digital photographs and that simple act started an odd chain of events that strikes at the heart of the recent debate on privacy, public access, and blocking access to flight plan data.

Expectation of Privacy

One doesn't need to be a lawyer or privacy expert to be aware that the concept of "expectation of privacy" seems to be fluid. Anyone who thinks that the constitution guarantees a right to privacy has not been paying attention. Exactly how we should interpret the various amendments in the Bill of Rights that appear to involve privacy depends on who you talk to. Clearly James Madison had no idea that evolving technology would provide so many opportunities to create the surveillance society we currently have. Virtually all voice and data communications can be captured and mined in an unprecedented wave of domestic surveillance. Concerns that wiretapping capabilities have been used without a court order or judicial oversight continue to be debated.

Public or Private

When I started to photograph that classic 737, I was immediately approached by a ramp worker who told me to stop. Nonplussed, I asked him what he was talking about. He explained that their clients didn't want their privacy invaded by having their aircraft photographed. I countered that I was standing on the ramp of a public use airport that was built with taxpayer money. He changed tack and said that it was the FBO's policy that photographs were not allowed. These sorts of claims to privacy in public spaces seem to be promulgated primarily by wealthy individuals and celebrities who are presumably worried about security and safety. Just to be clear, I'm not trying to start a class war. That war has already been fought and, as others have pointed out, the Middle Class lost.

The fact that aircraft flight tracking data was widely available came to the fore when that data was used to uncover extraordinary rendition flights where suspected terrorists were transported to other countries where certain rights and freedoms are not guaranteed. In several cases, the people transported were found to not be involved in terrorism after they experienced considerable ... ahem ... inconvenience. With the flight tracking cat out of the bag, the FAA eventually developed the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program where aircraft owners and operators could block access to the tracking of their aircraft.

In March, Secretary of Transportation LaHood announced the decision to no longer block aircraft tail numbers (with the exception of military aircraft and others who can prove valid security concerns), thereby providing general access to National Airspace System Status Information data. This effectively dismantles the previous arrangement provided by BARR where aircraft owners and operators could block access to the tracking of their aircraft.

Say Cheese

Arguments for privacy rights typically hinge around preventing unwarranted government intrusion, but those who claim that their privacy is being invaded by access to flight tracking data don't seem to be worried about the government. They seem concerned about the general public and what little remains of the Fourth Estate knowing what they are doing. Given all that has transpired, it would seem that AOPA and the NBAA are a little late to the party when it comes privacy rights. The lines between private and public spaces as well as individual versus corporate rights continue to be redefined. So some simple advice: If you have a classic B737 and you don't want anyone to photograph it or know its location, park it in your backyard, throw a tarp over it, and hope for the best.


Kumar said... is a C172SP WVFC club aircraft that I used to fly regularly. Your post indicated that the owner needs to convince the authorities that there is a valid security concern for it to be blocked. Is there a time limit to lift this block ?

John Ewing said...


I don't know the definitive answer, but I suspect that FlightAware provides their own level of blocking to customers who request it.


Trenton Lipscomb said...

What lunacy! There are even interior shots of N370BC available: