Trump is not the first world leader to run into such issues. Britain has faced its own set of headaches with the tracking of planes.
Last year, when Prime Minister Theresa May traveled to meet the newly inaugurated U.S. president, a journalist noticed that her plane was being tracked online. At the time, Jim Waterson, then the politics editor at BuzzFeed’s British operation, tweeted that the Royal Air Force refueling craft that doubles as May’s executive transport plane could be tracked on FlightRadar and similar flight-tracking websites. “No one on the trip raised a complaint when I tweeted this,” said Waterson, now at The Guardian. Weeks later, though, The Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper, claimed that the fact that the plane could be tracked left open the possibility of, as Waterson described it, “terrorists potentially—with the emphasis on potentially—being able to use this information to shoot the prime minister out of the sky.” May’s plane is now no longer trackable on most consumer websites.
Still more embarrassment for the British government came in the form of another Mail on Sunday story, this time noting that a U.K. spy plane, reportedly flying a U.S.-U.K. operation scouting Russia’s air defenses, was also trackable by plane-spotting apps.
Regardless of who is aboard a plane, stopping people from tracking its location is not entirely straightforward: Crossing crowded airspace over multiple countries requires a transponder to be sending information on the aircraft’s location, call sign, and similar details (Air Force One’s disguised call sign on Trump’s Iraq trip, for the record, was RCH358). That does mean that in the new, far more connected online world, there will always be a form of risk.
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Plane spotters such as Meloy have been watching out for aircraft for decades, but as David Cenciotti, a respected aviation blogger, notes, new technical tools at their disposal, along with the near-instantaneous communications afforded by the internet, have changed the dynamic. “You are crowdsourcing something that 20 years ago would require weeks of investigations and letters exchanged with other geeks,” Cenciotti told me.
In other words, whereas once Meloy’s photo might have been an item of curiosity in a plane-spotting magazine a month after the fact, it now allows the president’s plane to be tracked in real time.
In fact, Cenciotti noted, military aircraft are fitted with the same transponders as civilian ones, and on occasion the operators of the military aircraft have forgotten to turn off the transponders during operations—including in Syria. This has been flagged as a real “operations security risk” in a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, increasing the risk of warning an adversary of an impending strike or even of allowing an attack to be intercepted. In the case of Air Force One this past week, Cenciotti said that because it was traveling through multiple countries’ airspace, it could not simply turn off its transponder (though he suggested it could have flown a different route or, to make sighting it harder for plane spotters, flown at night).