Elon Musk Offers to Pay Teenage Hacker to Delete Twitter Bot Tracking His Plane

  • You must’ve done something well to warrant this kind of attention.

There are a lot of bots — accounts running automated scripts to post content — on Twitter. Some of them spread misinformation, other post hourly pictures of animals, and then there’s @ElonJet.

This bot keeps track of Elon Musk’s private jet, reporting when it takes off, where it’s headed, and when it lands. And Elon Musk is ready to pay to get the bot offline.

Behind @ElonJet is a 19-year-old hacker Jack Sweeney. No, not the kind of hacker you see in movies — Sweeney just uses his computer skills to solve IT problems in creative ways.

The teenager is certainly prolific in coding Twitter bots. On top of @ElonJet, he’s created 14 others tracking other famous people, from Bill Gates to Jeff Bezos.

Sweeney doesn’t mean for his bots to cause any harm, though. They’re just products of curiosity and enthusiasm, not a tool to intimidate anyone.

In Musk’s case, Sweeney actually says he respects the man and that is a “fan.” Imagine his surprise, then, when his idol decided to message him on Twitter.

@ElonJet as it appeared on Twitter on 1/28/2022.

Let’s Get to Haggling

Sweeney’s Twitter pinged with an incoming message after midnight in fall 2021.

“Can you take [@ElonJet] down? It is a security risk,” the message from Musk read, according to Protocol.

But Sweeney didn’t have any idea he’d idol had slid into his DMs. The college freshman was fast asleep.

Seven hours later, he woke up and saw the message. Instead of getting starstruck, though, he engaged his business gear.

“Yes I can but it’ll cost you a Model 3 only joking unless?” wrote Sweeney.

Over the next few messages, Musk explained his — frankly understandable — reasoning for asking Sweeney to take the bot down. The Tesla and SpaceX billionaire is uncomfortable with people knowing where and when he’ll be.

“I don’t love the idea of being shot by a nutcase,” summarized Musk. We can’t blame him.

He also asked how much money Sweeney was making through the bot. Not much, the reply read, just about $20 a month.

Probably sensing an opportunity, Musk offered Sweeney $5,000 to take @ElonJet down. Considering it’d take the bot two years to make that much, we’d call that a fair offer.

But Sweeney wouldn’t crack that easily.

“Any chance to up that to $50k? It would be great support in college and would possibly allow me to get a car maybe even a Model 3,” he replied.

Musk said he’d think about it. And he sure is thinking of it long and hard, because @ElonJet is still online and Sweeney hasn’t yet received a penny.

Pieces of a Puzzle

It’s quite easy to see why @ElonJet would make Musk nervous. He’s a celebrity, after all, and there are a lot of weirdoes out.

To protect their passengers, the flight information for private jets is not available publicly. Or that’s what you’d think.

Even though the jets are private, the Federal Aviation Administration still keeps track of their departures and arrivals, and where the planes are headed. Many private jets are on the LADD block list, which removes their identifying information from the tracking data.

But even the blocked planes have ADS-B transponders that transmit data of the plane’s location that is tracked by publicly available services, like the ADS-B exchange. All Sweeney had to do was take that data and figure out a way to unravel it.

His bots determine a plane’s origin and destination based on its altitude and how long ago the data was received. They then cross-reference the results with anonymous FAA data to get a reliable position.

This whole process relies on a data security loophole that hasn’t been patched, because taking advantage of it takes a lot of specialized knowledge. But Sweeney has that knowledge, since his father works in the airline industry.

In addition, he’s been tracking planes all his life as a little hobby. Even as a kid, he’d try to guess what kind of a plane he saw in the sky and then see if he was right by referencing public flight data.

The Benefits of Bots

Although Sweeney’s bots depend on a security hole, he’s not doing anything illegal. He’s simply taking publicly available pieces of one puzzle and putting them all together.

In fact, he managed to astonish Musk when he explained how his bots work.

“Air traffic control is so primitive,” Musk groaned.

Although Sweeney hasn’t received his big payout from Musk, the bots have benefited him in other way. He has learned a lot about coding, and he even got a part-time job at UberJets as an app developer.

He also got to talk directly to Musk. For a fan, that has to count for something.

And speaking of speaking to Musk, the billionaire hasn’t completely ghosted Sweeney. The two have exchanged sporadic messages.

On January 19, Sweeney told Musk that he doesn’t really even want money for taking down @ElonJet. Instead, an internship at Tesla or SpaceX would be a much better compensation.

Musk didn’t immediately respond to Sweeney, but the teenage tech wiz wasn’t surprised. After all, according to @ElonJet, he was on a vacation in Hawaii at the time.