To Track or Not To Track: What’s Happening with Taylor Swift’s Flight Tracking?

The wing and engine of an airplane.
Alexandra Broadhurst

College student Jack Sweeney became known in 2022 for creating Twitter bots that tracked the private jet usage of public figures including Elon Musk, Taylor Swift, and a series of Russian oligarchs. What started as an experiment following his personal interests in computer science and aviation has now gained him a respectable public following and now raises ethical questions about the safety of these celebrities. 

In December 2023, Sweeney received a cease and desist letter from Taylor Swift’s team which said, his “real-time and precise information about our Client’s location and future whereabouts to the public on social media” posed an “imminent threat to the safety and wellbeing of” Swift. This is not the first time Sweeney has been threatened with legal action or an incentive to stop publishing this information. 

it looks more like blackmail as opposed to public awareness and transparency

In 2022, Elon Musk offered Sweeney $5000 to delete the Twitter bot tracking his jet to “prevent crazy people” from being able to follow his movements because he didn’t “love the idea of being shot by a nutcase.” Sweeney refused, instead requesting $50,000 or even an internship to remove the account. Sweeney has stated that he strongly believes in “transparency” and stated that it “is public information after all.” However, it looks more like blackmail as opposed to public awareness and transparency. Those who are willing to help him will not be posted about and those who do not face public scrutiny. 

Between her worldwide Eras tour and romance with Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, it comes as no surprise that Taylor Swift is one of the world’s biggest CO2 offenders and Jack Sweeney’s tracking software has placed her under even more public scrutiny. Therefore, people have accused Swift of sending this cease and desist letter, not due to fear for her safety, but instead to stop the backlash she has been receiving. It seems that her name is currently synonymous with celebrity climate recklessness. Swift has spoken about climate change before, in a 2020 interview she said it was one of the “horrific situations that we find ourselves facing right now,” and yet she seems to be one of the main perpetrators. But does she deserve the level of criticism she is receiving? 

perhaps she should be held to a higher standard of accountability than other stars

According to some sources like My Climate Carbon Tracker, Swift doesn’t even appear in the top 30 celebrities whose private jet usage produced the most CO2 emissions, but she seems to be taking the brunt of the backlash. This could be as a result of her massive influence. She may not be the worst offender, but she is undoubtedly one of the most influential people at the moment with her being named as Time’s Person of the Year in 2023 and some sources saying her endorsement could sway the 2024 United States Presidential Election. As a result, perhaps she should be held to a higher standard of accountability than other stars.

Swift has since sold one of her private jets so she now only has one and her publicist claims she has purchased more than double the carbon credits to offset her travel which aims to balance out the pollution caused by air travel. An example of these programs is planting trees to absorb the carbon dioxide produced. While in theory this sounds like a good idea, carbon offsets do not reduce emissions from the source so greenhouse gases are still being released into the atmosphere and still cause damage. There has been increasing evidence that carbon offsets have been overstating their ability to cut emissions and some of these programmes have even been linked to human rights abuses such as Indigenous people being forced from their land. 

Taylor Swift has a long history of stalkers with the most recent one being in January of this year 

Swift should be held accountable for her emissions, but perhaps Sweeney’s flight tracking is not the way to do it. Taylor Swift has a long history of stalkers with the most recent one being in January of this year, as someone attempted to break into her New York City apartment, therefore, making it understandable as to why his tracking would make her fearful and potentially put her at an increased risk. Sweeney argues that all the data he uses is public information and while that is strictly the case he has also made the information a lot more accessible. Protocol explains that his program relies on data from multiple public sources to track flight plans, it also requires a high level of knowledge of the aviation system to match transponder frequencies with anonymous flight plans that were available separately. Many of the planes Sweeney tracks are on the LADD block list, including Musk’s, meaning any identifying information has been removed from the data. He cross-references ADS-B data with websites that post anonymous FAA flight plans to piece together a plane’s destination. 

The information is strictly available to the public, but most people would not be able to track the planes the way he does in real time. Additionally, this information is then published on social media where it is easily seen. Someone doesn’t necessarily have to be looking for Taylor Swift’s flight information to find it. Swift has been candid before in talking about her experiences with stalking, especially in her Miss Americana documentary with Netflix when leaving her home and being faced with screaming fans she states, “This is my front yard and I’m highly aware of the fact that this is not normal,” and in an interview with CBS in 2019 she mentions keeping wound dressings on her at all times, “I’ve had a lot of stalkers show up to the house armed so we have to think that way.” Swift’s terrifying history with stalkers makes it understandable that this level of tracking makes her uncomfortable and even afraid. As an incredibly influential and wealthy public figure, Taylor Swift should take responsibility for her many flights, but it should not come as a risk to her safety or her state of mind.

Alexandra Broadhurst

Featured image courtesy of Ahmed Muntasir via Pexels. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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