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Dictators, Spy Planes, and Twitter Bots: How to Leverage Open Source Flight Data for Your Investigations

“A dictator's plane landed in #GVA [Geneva] airport: 4K-AZ888 used by the government of Azerbaijan (Gulfstream G450) on 2020/10/08 at 12:10:14.”

This announcement isn’t the beginning of the latest Mission Impossible movie but rather, it comes from a Twitter bot tracking the planes of authoritarian leaders. The bot, called “GVA Dictator Alert”, uses open source data to track planes that are flying in and out of Geneva airport (GVA being the airport code for Geneva). 

Since its start, the OCCRP funded project has expanded from Geneva to include dozens of airports. The project tracks more than 200 planes used by regimes across the globe, explains Emmanuel Freudenthal, who runs the project with his colleague François Pilet. The list of authoritarian governments is based on The Economist’s Democracy Index. “I suggested to him that we should expand this to the whole world. Why track dictators only when they are coming to Geneva?”

Since first getting involved in the project, Freudenthal, who works as an investigative journalist in Africa, has used this flight data to track the movements of dictators, such as Cameroon’s Paul Biya. Outlets such as Buzzfeed and Quartz have used the data to investigate spy planes and helicopters, while The Wall Street Journal looked at possible causes of a plane crash.

Getting the Flight Data

Getting the flight data is relatively easy, Freudenthal says. Most planes share their location and altitude, as well as other information, using a system called Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS–B, which is mostly used to avoid collisions. But anyone with an antenna, which can be bought for less than $10, can tap into the broadcasts.  

“Much like you listen to an FM radio at home, the data is sent by planes unencrypted,” he says. “Anyone can tune in with one of those antennas, and a Raspberry Pi.”

Smaller antennas can track planes within a radius of 100 kilometers, while larger antennas can go as far as 400 kilometers. The reception also depends on the placement of the antenna. The better the view of the sky and the higher the antenna is, the bigger the range, according to Freudenthal. 

Today, there are a handful of websites that allow you to track planes globally this way. The catch is that owners can ask for their planes to be removed, meaning a lot of aircraft won’t ever show up on your screen.  

“What we've done at Dictator Alert is we've partnered with [ADS-B Exchange], the only website that doesn't filter any of the planes. [...] That enables us to track planes that have asked those commercial websites not to be tracked,” the journalist says. 

Finding the Needle in the Haystack

For his latest investigation, Freudenthal looked into how private contractors have become part of U.S. anti-terrorism operations in East Africa. Together with a team of reporters, he analyzed troves of flight data to find private surveillance planes in Somalia. These contractors provided intelligence to the U.S. military whose drones strikes have killed Islamist insurgents, and sometimes also civilians.

At the start of their investigation, the team had to figure out how to identify those spy planes out of the vast amount of flight data that was available to them. 

“Once you have the idea, part of the challenge of this kind of investigation is to figure out how you're going to refine the data,” Freudenthal says. “So the idea to exclude commercial planes, the idea, for example, to look at Paradise Paper companies, all of the different ways in which you can filter this data. And that requires a little bit of knowledge, about planes, and just a bit of creativity.”

What helped them was the fact that there aren’t that many planes in Somalia, to begin with, he says, adding that “basically any plane that flies at low altitude in Somalia is going to be a bit interesting for some reason or another.”

Another way to narrow down the number of planes to look at was excluding all commercial flights from the data set, Freudenthal says. The team also looked at so-called block lists by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, showing for which planes the agency has received requests to hide data such as ASD-B. 

Lastly, the reporters asked a programmer to build a script to find planes that had been in the vicinity of drone-strike sites in the days prior or after, using data collected by the non-profit group Airwars. The group monitors conflicts across the globe and has built a large archive of airstrikes, recording tens of thousands of cases of civilian harm.   

After going through all of these steps, the reporters ended up with a list of a few dozen planes that seemed interesting. “So then you have to look at each of those planes. Search what plane it is, and a lot of times you find it's some kind of boring commercial plane,” Freudenthal says. “And then sometimes you find that it's, you know, a plane that is supposed to be operating in the U.S. countryside. So that's kind of weird. And if you look deeper into who owns it, where it's been, the flight pattern, then sometimes you find that oh, this is actually a spy plane.”

Lessons Learned

Freudenthal says what he has learned after years of digging into flight data is that having the data alone won’t get you very far. “If you're hoping to install an antenna in your house in London, Paris, or New York or Nairobi, and get some stories, by looking at this data, that's going to be extremely difficult.” Finding the one plane that is interesting and worth writing about among “hundreds of thousands of planes, each going about their own business,” is very tricky, he adds.  

A more rewarding approach is to find a story where a plane was involved and then try and confirm what happened, he says. Paul Rusesabagina, a critic of Rwandan president Paul Kagame, mysteriously disappeared from Dubai this August before resurfacing as a prisoner in Rwanda. Freudenthal found that the plane that had transported Rusesabagina was owned by a company that Kagame’s government had used for chartered flights before, adding to suspicions that Kagame was behind the disappearance.   

On the other hand, installing antennas in remote places, or war zones could also be interesting, according to Freudenthal. “That makes the haystack in which you're going to look for your story much smaller.” 

Another skill that you’ll need to dig into flight data is the ability to handle large amounts of data, he says. “The data that you get is raw data. And it's just loads of coordinates and loads of planes. So you need to be able to process that data.” Because that can be so tricky, he and another journalist recently started a nonprofit called Signalistic that aims to help other journalists report stories based on data, and especially plane data. While there is no website yet, Freudenthal says people who have ideas for stories and are looking for help can just contact him directly, for example on Twitter.