Plane Finder Phone App Called An 'Aid To Terrorism,' Even If It's Just Using Public Data

from the look,-up-there-in-the-sky,-it's-a-clue dept

Slashdot points us to the news that security experts and the US Dept. of Homeland Security are apparently worried about an application called Plane Finder, which is available on the iPhone and Android phones. Among other things, it lets you point your phone at an airplane in the sky, and it will provide info on that plane, including the height and speed, as well as its destination, and a "likely course." The fear, of course, is that terrorists could potentially use this to shoot down a plane.

Of course, in blaming this app, everyone seems to be missing the real target. This app is using Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcasts (ADS-B), which is transmitted by many aircraft these days, and can apparently be read with a $200 receiver. In other words, if terrorists wanted that data, they'd go out and get that $200 receiver. The "problem" (if there really is one) isn't the Plane Finder app (which actually sounds kind of cool), but the fact that all that data is being made available publicly. Blaming the app sort of misses the point, because if the data is available so easily, you can bet those who wish to do harm with it, have already figured that out. In the meantime, the Plane Finder app itself doesn't appear to actually have that many downloads. The report claims 2,000 sales on iTunes, and in the Android store, it looks like less than 500 have been purchased. Of course, now that it's in the news...


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 11:57am

    That is kinda cool

    If it wasn't for the fact that I refuse to buy anything from iTunes again (and my iPod was stolen), I'd totally get that. Is it on the android market?

    It sounds like a program my coworker uses to track (and subsequently screw with) my boss when he flies in from NY.

     

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  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:01pm

    Same thing with ships (AIS)

    This is not a new thing, the same kind of complaint has been made about sites like http://www.marinetraffic.com/

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_identification_system#AIS_data_on_the_Internet for details.

     

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  3.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:02pm

    It's a matter of personal connection...

    "In other words, if terrorists wanted that data, they'd go out and get that $200 receiver."

    But that makes for a shitty headline. The point of newspapers isn't to inform, it's to sell papers. Look at the two (amplified) headlines below, and guess which one will resonate fear in people:

    1. Using public data and a $200 dollar mystery device, terrorists might know where your plane is going....

    or

    2. A terrorist with an iPhone is going to blow up your plane! LOUD NOISES!!!!

    The reason the iPhone is important to the story is because people have smart phones. It resonates. It connects. Mystery devices don't matter because they don't connect. People's brains shut off when thinking about what they imagine is some hard to get, niche market mystery device thingy....

     

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  4.  
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    Robert, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:05pm

    Doesn't look like ADS-B has much coverage. The app is getting fairly bad reviews (I suspect mostly because of such a small number of ADS-B equipped planes in the US).

    Much ado over nothing, which is too bad because it sounds like a neat app.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:06pm

    Security Theater.

    I emailed this one in to Bruce Schneier. This is ridiculous grandstanding. If terrorists want to range-find a plane as a target, they certainly don't need an iPhone, and I'm pretty sure they're not picky about which airplane it is for the most part.

    This is just hand waving and gnashing of teeth for no real threat.

     

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  6.  
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    iamtheky (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:23pm

    Next headline: Terrorists locate coordinates for no less than 3 satellites at a time with handheld GPS devices!

     

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  7.  
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    PRMan, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:33pm

    Re: It's a matter of personal connection...

    Well said.

     

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  8.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:36pm

    Re: It's a matter of personal connection...

    Could you re write this line in a way it would work for one of rupert murdochs tabloids please ...

    " A terrorist with an iPhone is going to blow up your plane! LOUD NOISES!!!!"

    I am interested in seeing what you can come up with

     

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  9.  
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    PRMan, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:36pm

    Re:

    Didn't you read anything Dark Helmet said?

    Next headline: Terrorists locate coordinates for no less than 3 satellites at a time with AN iPHONE!!!

    FTFY

     

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  10.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:40pm

    Re: Re: It's a matter of personal connection...

    Murdoch, eh? Let me give it a shot:

    "DEMOCRATS ALLOW OBAMA TERRORISTS WITH IPHONES TO SHOOT DOWN YOUR PLANE WITH CONCENTRATED BEAMS OF SOCIALISM! READ MORE ABOUT IT NOW BEHIND THIS MOTHERFUCKING PAYWALL!"

    Meh, it's only a first attempt....

     

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  11.  
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    pixelpusher220 (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:47pm

    Re:

    My first thought was, does Air Force One have to conform to the same system?

     

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  12.  
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    Berenerd (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:48pm

    Re: Re:

    On the next hour of...24....boop...beep..boop....beep...boop...beeep* *EXPLOSION* Jack is running in in spandex and a pick axe with night vision goggles...he then throws the axe at the plane the same time the terrorist rocket is about to hit and deflects the rocket where it goes back and kills the terrorist...
    I should be a writer...

     

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  13.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:55pm

    I have a feeling this story begins with someone at a security firm saying "we just received a tip from Same Function But Way More Expensive, LLC about an iphone application that does the same thing their stuff does, but cheaper. Tell the media it's a terrorist threat."

     

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  14.  
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    Jay (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:56pm

    Re: Re: It's a matter of personal connection...

    OBAMA SUPPORTS TERRORISM WITH NEW IPHONE APP!

    Terror has become that much easier in the United States. With the new PlaneFinder app, terrorists---

    Read more at Rupert Murdoch's paywall for $10 the first minute and $5 for each additional minute! Join the fun!

     

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  15.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 12:58pm

    Re: Re: Re: It's a matter of personal connection...

    Sigh, stupid industry. Why can't they just go back to funding and doing manufacturing for the enemy like Ford did? Sure, it's detestable, but at least it's quiet....

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 1:08pm

    Re:

    Not for $5 it isn't.

     

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  17.  
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    Kingster (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 1:24pm

    Re: Re:

    Why wouldn't it? Each airframe gets a unique 24-bit ADS-B identifier, much like an IMEI number or MAC address.

    And also... Air Force One is the call sign given to *any* plane that the president is on... Not just the two 747s that most people think of. When he vacationed in Maine over the 4th of July, a Gulfstream carried the call sign.

    So, knowing the ADS-B identifier doesn't tell you who is on the plane. Just what plane it is.

    @Robert - all aircraft in North American Air Space are supposed to be ADS-B Out equipped by 2020... But there is no other mandate that I can see out there.

     

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  18.  
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    Stuart, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 1:33pm

    Re: That is kinda cool

    How did you read the summary without reading the summary?

     

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  19.  
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    Colin (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 1:42pm

    Range of a Stinger missile

    OK - according to Wikipedia (hey, I'm a bit lazy, ok?) a Stinger missile, which is presumably what one of these hypothetical terrorists would use to blow up said plane, has a range of between 3 and 5 miles, so....by the time your terrorist picks a spot close enough to a busy airport that planes are within the effective range of the missile, wouldn't binoculars be just as effective?

     

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  20.  
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    pixelpusher220 (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 1:53pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Yes I'm aware the call sign travels with the President himself.

    Assuming one can read a signal from an at altitude aircraft while on the ground, someone standing even a mile away from Andrews AFB could read the signal when the President takes off and relay his possible destination.

    The concept of planes broadcasting their routes to any who will listen just smacks of 'non-secure' design...sorta like the internet ;-)

     

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  21.  
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    Ruin20, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 2:12pm

    Level of sophistication

    Homeland security is right. The risk significantly increases as the level of complexity decreases. Just because the data can be gathered using a $200 device, it is easier for the terrorist if there is an app that replaces the training, acquisition, and effort required to gather that data.

    The Time Square bombing failed not due to lack of availability of material or techdata for the manufacture of the bomb, but because the bomb making process was significantly more difficult to perform than the capability of the recruits the Taliban could acquire. We achieve this by two means, one discouraging recruitment and two increasing the level of complexity required to preform an attack. If TNT and det cord were widely available the attack wouldn't have failed because Shahzad could have easily put together his IED.

    Keeping the minimum threshold of competency required to preform an attack above the capabilities of the enemy is what provides security. It's how the system works, the "capabilities gap" is what protects us.

    Now do I think this is necessarily the largest part of the capabilities gap required to shoot down a plane? No. Do I think that it is part of it? Yes. Does the social benefit outweigh the public risk? Probibly. But that's not what DHS is evaluating, its more of a congressional issue than one regulated to DHS.

     

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  22.  
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    Kingster (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 2:16pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    ADS-B does not require intended destination to be transmitted (at least at this point). The capability may be there, but I don't see reference to it. It does need heading, altitude, speed, aircraft callsign, aircraft type, and distance.

    http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ato/service_units/enroute/surv eillance_broadcast/general_information/media/factsheet.pdf

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 3:08pm

    Re: Range of a Stinger missile

    Better: the stinger is a heat seeker. Point it at the air and wait for a beep. Since aircraft routes are well known, you even know the approach direction, angle, speed and altitude. Just lock on and fire. It's kinda like fishing.

    And you save the money you would have spent on an iPhone. You get a bonus for staying under budget, and that might mean a promotion from martyr to junior terrorist (great health benefits: you don't have to blow yourself up).

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 3:17pm

    "Among other things, it lets you point your phone at an airplane in the sky, and it will provide info on that plane, including the height and speed, as well as its destination, and a "likely course." The fear, of course, is that terrorists could potentially use this to shoot down a plane."

    Uhm...this is just me but, if I was (hypothetically) going to shoot down a plane, I would need, like, at least a five minute warning (to set up the gear, locate the target, etc) before I was even ready to aim and fire. Life isn't Call of Duty. Shooting down a plane isn't as easy as pointing the gun to the air and pressing the trigger and the missile will hit the aircraft no matter what I do.

    So, if the aircraft must be "that close" for me to identify it, I probably wouldn't even have enough time to identify my target and fire at it before it was out of range. That App is useless for terrorism.

     

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  25.  
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    Paul`, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 3:26pm

    Re: Re:

    Since when does anything involved with the US president stick to the predetermined set of rules that everyone else has to abide by?

     

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  26.  
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    Pickle Monger (profile), Oct 4th, 2010 @ 3:33pm

    Re: Re: Re: It's a matter of personal connection...

    Good one though... :)

     

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  27.  
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    Dan, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 4:21pm

    Re: Re: Re: It's a matter of personal connection...

    Pretty good but you forgot to include a "THINK OF THE CHILDREN" reference.

     

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  28.  
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    Paul, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 8:15pm

    DIY???

    Who wants to build a ADS-B receiver out of an old TV satellite tuner (plans on web) when I could buy an app for my phone, and if a plane did go down from a missle strike at the same time I was tracking it from my phone via their database, whoops, where is that old TV tuner.

     

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  29.  
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    Michael, Oct 5th, 2010 @ 4:58am

    Re: Re: Re: It's a matter of personal connection...

    "Obama invites TERRORISTS to shoot down planes full of children with iPhone! Download the details of how to prevent it with this $40 iPad app!"

     

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  30.  
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    Hephaestus (profile), Oct 5th, 2010 @ 6:29am

    Re: Re: Re: It's a matter of personal connection...

    GRIN

     

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  31.  
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    The Infamous Joe (profile), Oct 5th, 2010 @ 7:44am

    Late to the game.

    Personally, I was unaware we have terrorists on US soil with ground to air missiles. Shouldn't we be more worried, not that they can find a target, but that they might have the means to shoot it out of the sky? AFAIK, the terrorists on 9/11 knew where they planes were because they were on them. If we are worried that there is an app that will tell them where the plane they are on is while they are on it, then that functionality comes with every GPS enabled smart phone.

     

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