Update: Elon Musk has now restored @HelicoptersOfDC, along with other suspended accounts. “The people have spoken,” he tweeted, referring to a Twitter poll he’d created the day before: 58.7 percent of voters thought the accounts should be immediately reinstated.
Since acquiring Twitter, Elon Musk has been talking up his belief in free speech. Last month, he tweeted that his commitment was so strong he would not even ban @elonjet—an account that used publicly available information to track the whereabouts of Musk’s private plane.
suspending prominent journalists, apparently because Musk thought they had violated the policy.But the self-described “free speech absolutist” then suspended the account on Wednesday and announced a new Twitter policy that would ban any account posting “real-time location info,” even if that information is gathered from public data. It didn’t take long for him to start
Andrew Logan, a freelance audio engineer who started tracking DC helicopters as a pandemic hobby, has been pretty critical of Musk’s decision. His account, Helicopters of DC, has garnered nearly 16,000 followers and uses crowdsourced data to track the types of helicopters flying through DC airspace. If you’ve ever wondered what a loud chopper above your head was up to, there’s a good chance his Twitter account had an answer.We called him yesterday to get his thoughts. Since then, the account appears to have been suspended.
Why do you consider flight tracking a form of free speech?
This data, which is public, is hugely powerful in allowing people to speak truth to power. The idea that rich people have their jets and can travel anonymously and that’s no different than anyone in their car is a stretch. [In DC], Air Force and Coast Guard traffic cuts straight across the city and often at a very low altitude, and that is a big mystery for residents. Just by going through public datasets, including ADS-B, and at times crowdsourcing and listening to air traffic control radio, which is also public information, we have been able to reveal a lot to District residents.
Musk says sharing flight information is a threat to personal safety. What do you make of that?
Any information can possibly be used for harm. The example that I use is, do you think we should be reporting on the bake sale at the school? Because it’s possible someone could use that information for harm.
But from the perspective of tracking military aircraft, one high level Air Force official once told me that it’s good to reveal what you can do with public information. Because when you are open and transparent about what is possible with public information, those individuals know what’s out there. In other words, the devil that you know is better than the devil that you don’t.
What was your initial reaction when you learned of Twitter’s new policy?
I was not surprised. Honestly, I thought it was going to happen the day after [Musk] closed the sale. But then he sent the tweet where he said, “My commitment to free speech is, blah, blah, blah, that I won’t even ban the account tracking my private plane.” And we all were waiting with bated breath. But in the end it shows that we can’t really trust what people say on Twitter.
Are you worried about your account being suspended? [Note: this interview was conducted before @HelicoptersOfDC was suspended]
When [Helicopters of DC] started, we were using ADS-B Exchange data, which is the data in question [used by many of the suspended accounts]. ADS-B is the only service that provides unfiltered information on flights through transponder protocol, which is a safety standard. It is intended to keep track of flights, and it is by design public. The public can intercept and divulge the open airwave, and that is within our legal rights. But in the DC area, what we discovered is that the government has a pretty wide exemption from using this public safety standard, so [pilots] just turn off their transponders.
As a result, what we ended up doing is crowdsourcing our data from DC residents, so when they have a helicopter fly over them, they take a photo of it and send it with their geolocation, which I don’t think is going to be a problem with this new policy because they are volunteering their geolocation to Twitter. We just map that geolocation and log that helicopter’s location to our database. We then created a machine-learning program that automatically tells you who the operator of your photo is. So any time someone sends us a photo, it will send probabilistic results that says it’s an 80 percent chance that this is Park Police, for example. Largely I don’t believe that has implications in the sense that this policy is written pretty clearly to protect millionaires and billionaires.
What’s the general consensus you’re hearing from other people who run accounts like these? Do you plan to stay on Twitter?
I think in general we are looking at moving off the platform, but it’s a slow grind because Twitter really is the best platform for breaking news, and that is the market that we’re in for a lot of cases. So we’d love to make it work if we could, but it’s hard with an unstable person at the helm.
Why should people who don’t care about Elon Musk and have no interest in flight tracking care about this new policy?
I do think there’s wider implications for this policy on Twitter in terms of journalism, because if you just search on Twitter, “this public official has arrived at blank” or “Joe Biden has arrived at the Iowa caucus,” now, without express written permission [of the person in question], your tweets can be subject to removal and you can be banned permanently. I worry it will have a dampening effect when we when we reach the next general election.
This interview has been edited and condensed.